Elena In Argentina

Vi Moreau

Email Me!

DISCLAIMER: Highlander the Series is a property of Rysher Entertainment. Characters are used without permission. The characters and stories created by the author are copyright by Vivian Moreau, 1996.

WARNINGS: There is a liberal use of the name of God by one of the main characters. For those who might be offended, please realize that this fictional character is South American and very Roman Catholic, and God was an important part of the daily lives of 17th century Catholics. She is not being blasphemous.

One

Duran [estancia] outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 3, 1996

Elena Duran was born in colonial Argentina around 1610 of a [Mapuche] Indian mother and a Spanish conquistador father. At age twelve she was bought by a Spanish [caballero,] Don Alvaro Duran y Agramonte, an Immortal who became her father and mentor. After he was beheaded, she inherited his estate in Argentina, and spent almost two centuries helping her mother's people fight a losing guerrilla war against the Spanish. Her ranch was run during her frequent absences by generation after generation of an Indian family from her mother's tribe, and her Immortality was known to key members of the Onioco family, passed down to son and daughter.

"And they all live there, the whole tribe, on your [estancia]?" Duncan had asked.

"Of course not, [querido]. Not everyone wants to be a farmer or a rancher. Many of them grew up and left to pursue careers, get married, see the world. Esteban Onioco is a successful cardiologist in Montevideo. Carlitos Onioco -- who had a beautiful voice -- studied at La Scala in Milan in the 1930's. Marianna Onioco de Moron is my attorney, and Juanito runs the place these days. He has a degree in agriculture."

"All of it financed by you."

She nodded. "They belong to me. No. . .it's a different word in Spanish. They are my people, my family, and have been for a long time."

"But they don't all know you're Immortal."

"No, but sometimes I think many more suspect something; sometimes when I come back, if enough time has passed, I'm my own daughter, or granddaughter. It doesn't matter. I feel safe there."

Duncan said nothing to this.

She had wired ahead, and a young Indian named Paco met them at the airport with a sign reading "Senorita Duran." Elena didn't recognize him personally, but it didn't matter. Just seeing his face, his features -- the high cheekbones, dark skin, coal black eyes, thick black hair -- gave her a jolt, making her realize she really was coming home. When they arrived at the main house there was a small crowd waiting. The greetings were effusive, generous -- Duncan could feel the obvious affection and high regard they held for "[la senorita]" -- and she knew almost every individual and spoke to them all, hugging some, kissing some of the women, and exclaiming over several children and babies. For each of the children she had a sweet, picked up at a shop in Buenos Aires. However, Duncan noticed an underlying sadness in her; a melancholy, almost; an obvious difference in her energy level from before her time with Claude Bethel.

Once inside the house, the group opened a path for a small, thin old woman with very high cheekbones and skin the color of bronze. In her wake was a man in his thirties who looked remarkably like her.

Elena brightened visibly; her eyes filled unexpectedly.

"[!Marielenita, mi nina, ven aca!]" Holding her arms wide, the Indian managed to engulf Elena in them, even though she was no taller than the Immortal woman's chest. Elena hugged her back. When the old woman pulled back, she was unashamedly weeping. She frowned; her wrinkles seemed to deepen. "You look so pale and thin! You don't look good at all! Are you ill? And what happened to your hair? And your eye, [!Santisima!] Your eye! What happened?" she said, shaking her head.

Elena reassured her briefly, saying they'd speak later, then turned to the man, who took both her hands in his, shaking them warmly. "[!Bienvenida, senorita!]" he said, but he, too, looked at Elena worriedly.

Elena smiled at him, said, "Juanito," and turned to Duncan. "Carmela, Juanito, this is my very good friend Duncan MacLeod."

Carmela curtsied, murmuring "[Mucho gusto, Senor MacLeod.]" and Juanito bowed his head slightly, saying only, "Senor."

Duncan nodded, smiling. "[Encantado.]"

The old woman was delighted. "[!Habla espanol! ?Es Ud. espanol o italiano, senor?]" she asked him.

Duncan shook his head. [Soy escoces, Carmela.]"

"[!Escoces! !Muy bien! Y muy bienvenido, Senor Mac ]" She suddenly stopped, and looked at Duncan a little harder, then looked at Elena. Duncan didn't miss the glance between the two women.

"Aayy!" said Carmela, low, holding her hand to her chest in an unconscious, protective gesture, stepping back slightly from Duncan. For a brief moment Duncan could see fear. . .but then Juanito said, in soft accented English, "You are very welcome here, Senor MacLeod. If there is anything you need, please do not hesitate to ask."

"Thank you, Juanito," Duncan said, realizing what was going on, while the old woman murmured something. Elena reassured her again, putting her arm around Carmela's shoulders, and Juanito translated. "My grandmother apologizes for her rudeness to you, senor. She is old and easily frightened. And the last time someone like. . .yourself came to this house, looking for the senorita. . ."

"Tell her I understand, and take no offense, Juanito."

Carmela curtsied again, smiled at Duncan, beamed at Elena, then left to prepare them something to eat and drink.

/////

The next day they had an [asado,] an all-day country-style cookout, and the quantity of food, drink and people was enormous, taking Duncan back to other faraway celebrations. In the center of it all, Elena said very little, but was obviously enjoying the attention. Duncan could see she felt happy for the first time in weeks, and proud, and even secure. She walked taller, and smiled often. She introduced him to various members of the Onioco family and to many others, and he was content to stay back and watch.

Duran [estancia] outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, Nov. 6, 1996, 3 a.m.

Elena sat up in bed, panting, not sure if the cry had been part of her dream or had actually left her lips. No more sleep tonight, she thought bitterly. She knew Duncan was in a room nearby, but too far to be awakened by her thrashings. She was as drenched with sweat as if she'd just finished combat, and her sheets were dripping, so she got up, dried herself off, changed into a robe, and went down to her workout studio.

It was a converted ballroom, with polished wood floors and French doors leading out to a patio. Two adjacent walls were covered with mirrors, and against one end of the room was Nautilus equipment: weights, a treadmill, a speed bag and a heavy bag, and mats stacked on the floor. On the other end of the room was a rack with practice swords, [bokken,] quarterstaffs, and a fencing dummy.

But the focal point of the room was the far wall, where over two dozen sharp edged weapons, including two hand axes, were artfully hung. Elena looked at one particular sword and smiled, remembering.

Duran [estancia] outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, May 1655

"May I have the honor of this dance, Senorita Duran?"

Elena looks the young nobleman over. He is dressed in the latest European fashion, and so is she -- and she's extremely uncomfortable in the wide dress, underdress, stays, petticoats -- it never ends! It takes so much effort to just move across the room! Not to mention that there is no place to hide her sword. She'll have to work on that.

She glances at her father, Don Alvaro, standing near the open doors of the ballroom, speaking with another [estanciero.] They are both wearing swords -- well, dress swords, anyway -- and she chafes at the disadvantages of being a woman.

"Senorita?"

Her [duena,] or chaperone, murmurs "Mariaelena," chiding her softly for ignoring the young man still waiting patiently, holding his hand out to her. Elena refocuses on him, smiling, wondering what he would say if she told him she'd rather fence with him, or maybe race him on horseback, than dance. But that, of course, would be scandalous, and her father has often warned her about acting like a virtuous Spanish lady.

She puts her hand in his, looking at him more closely. Don Carlos is a dandy in every sense of the word -- but she knows that when these [senoritos] aren't eating or sleeping, they indulge in only two activities: swordplay and seducing women. She suspects that this very attractive stud in front of her has seen plenty of action in the boudoir -- and, what particularly interests her, he's almost certainly a deadly swordsman. She wishes she could try him out, just once! Maybe, she thinks, she could indulge one of his two passions.

Elena smiles at him again, her eyes glowing, her mind plotting, and says, "Don Carlos, I would be happy to dance with you. But in exchange, I wonder if I could ask you for a special favor?"

"Senorita, I would be honored to serve you," he answers fervently.

The resulting adventure, as she chooses to call it, earns her a terrible beating from Don Alvaro, but it's worthwhile just to see the young man's face when she draws a sword on him.

Duran [estancia] outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, Nov. 6, 1996, 3 a.m.

As Elena stood in the ballroom, smiling slightly, she heard someone enter behind her. Carmela, in her nightgown, had brought a snack and two mugs with hot milk. There was also a bottle with amber liquid and two brandy snifters. She set the tray down on top of the stacked mats and said, "[Ven, nina.] Talk to me."

Elena heard the concern in the old woman's voice and smiled sadly. It was almost funny that Carmela should treat her like a child, considering Elena had been there when the old Indian was born, over eighty years ago! Elena shook her head. "You don't want to hear this, [vieja.]" She'd started calling Carmela 'old lady' years ago -- and that was ironic, too.

"If it's so bad, perhaps the brandy instead of the milk. Come." The two women sat on the mats, and Carmela poured.

For a moment they drank in silence, then Carmela said, "I have known you all my life, Mariaelena. If I had to use one word to describe you all these years, it would be 'strong.' Like a rock. But this time is different, isn't it?"

Strong! Elena nodded bleakly. She wanted to cry. Instead, she asked, hiding it, and genuinely curious. "Tell me what you think is different, [vieja?] Besides the obvious."

"You seem lost. . .no, defeated. That's it. Defeated."

Elena winced at the word. Defeated. Yeah. "You should have seen me three weeks ago," she said, finishing her drink, pouring herself another.

"What happened, Mariaelena? Can you tell me?"

Elena was torn between unburdening herself and not wanting to burden Carmela. In the end, she decided she couldn't start indulging herself in this way -- it would be too dangerous for her people here. She had never allowed them to involve themselves in her Immortal affairs, and now was a terrible time to start.

"Carmela, I know you care about me, but this has to do with my being an Immortal. There's nothing you can do in any case."

Carmela opened her mouth, closed it again, then asked, "May I ask about your right eye? It's gone? Is this possible?"

"Yes."

Carmela nodded, then asked, "And this man, this MacLeod? He's on your side? You trust him?"

"I trust him with my life. He loves me."

"But you're afraid he thinks less of you?" Carmela supplied. "Because of what happened? Because of what this other Immortal did to you?"

Elena had thought just that. She wondered what the old woman was thinking, guessing. "I don't know, Carmela. Just. . .just let it go."

"Men are proud, and this Scotsman is, I think, prouder than most. When their women are defiled," the old woman continued, looking closely at Elena, "some men take it as a personal insult, as an affront to their manhood, their honor. As though the other man meant to hurt them, not the woman. I've seen this myself."

"So have I."

"But you're right; MacLeod does love you. That much is obvious, from the way he looks at you." She took Elena's hands in hers. "The one who hurt you. . ."

"Is none of your concern," Elena said, standing abruptly. "I'll take care of it." But she couldn't take care of it -- she sure couldn't take care of Bethel. . .and suddenly Elena had a thought that made her heart almost stop. "If he comes for me, I want you and the others to stay out of the way, as always. I don't want any of you to be hurt -- I don't want what happened before to happen again."

Carmela seemed to be thinking it over. Finally she nodded. "You did well, coming here. You'll be safe here," Carmela soothed her. "Senor Mac will protect you because he loves you and because it will make him feel better. But if he can't, we will. . ."

"You will do nothing!" Elena shouted, shaking her head. "Nothing!" She was in tears. "You will not interfere. I won't let you! This is our fight, not yours!" She lowered her voice. "You leave the Immortals to me and to MacLeod! You stay out of it -- do you understand?" There was a shiver in her voice. Fear coursed through her; for herself and for the Indians.

"I don't care about your rules, [nina.] They don't hold for us. Now that you need us, we will protect you if we have to."

"Listen to me, Carmela. Do you remember what I told you twenty- five years ago? Do you remember what you promised? And do you remember what happened when one of you shot that Immortal? If you interfere; if you disobey me, and meddle in my affairs. . .don't you know that the worst thing that could happen to me now is to have you hurt because of me? This house is my haven, my refuge. But if I think you're going to be attacking Immortals right and left, I won't be able to come here anymore. Can't you see that?!" An eighty year old woman! I'm supposed to be protecting *you!* she said to herself, tears still flowing.

"You want us, your people who love you, your family, to just stand by, when you're hurt. . ."

"Yes. This is what I want. I insist on it. And if you can't handle it, then leave, [vieja.] Leave now! I don't want you near me!"

"You don't mean it, Mariaelena!"

"I do mean it. I want you to keep your promise! Tell me that you will, Carmela. Say it!"

Carmela took a deep breath, let it out. "Very well. I will keep my word. It will be as you wish, senorita." Her voice was cold.

Translations: (all Spanish)

estancia - Argentina combination ranch/farm

Mapuche - South American Indian tribe who resisted the Spanish conquistadores from the 16th to the 19th centuries

caballero - gentleman; or knight

querida/querido - beloved

la senorita - miss; ms.; the lady

mi nina, ven - come here, my girl

Santisima - Holy Virgin Mother

bienvenido/bienvenida - welcome

mucho gusto - nice to meet you

encantado - charmed

habla espanol - he/she speaks Spanish

Es Ud. espanol? italiano? - are you Spanish? Italian?

soy escoces - I'm Scottish

bokken (Jap.) - wooden practice swords, used for in practice, for safety's sake

estanciero - landowner

senorito - young noble dandy

Defeated.

Two

Elena sagged. Carmela had never called her senorita before. She knew she'd hurt the old woman's feelings -- but she wouldn't, couldn't let anything happen to them. She tried one more time to explain. "Carmela. I. . .don't do this to me. You're my family. I've already lost so much. I can't bear to have anything happen to any of you, and then have to live with it for all my life. You can understand that, can't you?"

"I understand that for centuries we have trusted you with our lives. But you won't trust us with yours, will you? We are just friends in passing -- what can our short lives really mean to someone like you?"

Elena sighed loudly. "The people I love mean everything to me," she said, barely audibly.

Carmela was silent for a moment; then shook her head and sighed. "You will take care, Mariaelena?"

"I always do, Carmela."

Carmela gave Elena a long, strong hug, picked up the tray, and left the room.

Duran [estancia] outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, Nov.6, 1996, dawn

They packed only the supplies they could carry on horseback for their circuit ride of her property. Elena was eager to show Duncan everything, so at dawn the two of them went into the kitchen and the cook fed them a huge breakfast. Then they took their provisions for the camping trip.

Duncan noticed that Carmela's attitude toward him was both respectful and warm. But there was something else, and this morning Duncan realized what it was. It was an acceptance of him, a kind of taking him in to the group and trying to make him feel at home. It had started at the party the day before, and was subtle, but Duncan felt it everywhere, from every individual. He was with [la senorita,] and that made him a part of them.

"Are you sure you're not too tired to go on this long ride, Mariaelena? Four days!" Carmela said.

"Riding doesn't tire me, [vieja.] It invigorates me." As they stood, Elena bent down and kissed the old woman on the cheek. "Please don't worry about me." After their conversation this earlier this morning, she knew Carmela couldn't help worrying.

Carmela smiled at her. "If only it were so easy."

Elena smiled, thinking nothing was so easy, and left the kitchen, but as Duncan followed Carmela called out to him softly. "Senor." He turned, and she said, worriedly, "She's not well. Please take care of her, Senor Mac."

Duncan nodded once and went out the door. As they walked to the stables, he said to Elena, "She's very worried about you."

"Yes. They are all used to seeing me strong and at least relatively happy. This must be hard for them, especially for Carmela, who is a very loving, giving person."

"Did you tell her what happened?"

"No, I don't want them involved to that degree. It's too dangerous. But she can guess." Elena stopped suddenly, turning to him. "Please promise me, Duncan, if anything happens to me, that you won't let. . .him hurt any of my people."

"Of course not." He answered with such assurance that she was immediately appeased.

A teenaged girl brought out a large mare the color of rich topsoil, with a white blaze between her eyes. "Well, [chica,] have you been loving my Adelita?" Elena asked. She rubbed the mare's nose fondly, getting an answering snuffle and a snort for a greeting.

"Oh, yes, senorita. I exercise her every day! She loves to gallop!"

The mare sniffed around Elena, then reached around to Elena's back pocket, where the top of a carrot was just showing. It was an old game, and Elena laughed with delight at the mare's self-satisfied expression as she chewed contentedly. Then she turned again to the girl. "She looks wonderful! Thank you for taking such good care of her, Julia."

The girl beamed with pride. "Thank you, senorita."

As Duncan mounted his roan, Elena vaulted easily onto the saddle. Adelita danced with barely suppressed excitement; an excitement shared by her rider. "Yours is Pancho, but they sometimes call him [el loco.] He likes to run also, Duncan. You've been warned!" she laughed, and leapt forward, trotting out toward the wheat fields.

Duncan had a little trouble controlling [el loco] until he established who was boss. The contest of wills lasted most of an hour, but in the end the gelding agreed that Duncan was in charge -- nominally, at least. If he wondered why Elena had given him such a spirited animal, he didn't ask.

Elena's property was a vast combination ranch/farm with corn and wheat on the eastern portion and cattle in the west. They rode all day, and that night they camped at the edge of a huge cornfield. The next day they reached the treeless pampa. Tall grass, wildlife, and of course, cattle. And wild horses.

"Look, Duncan!" she exclaimed, pointing out a black stallion. "Isn't he beautiful!" She could feel her heart race at the sheer sight of these animals.

"Yes, he's magnificent,!" Duncan replied, admiring the horse, reining in his own mount, who was whinnying with excitement; and remembering that the first time he'd met Elena she'd made him think of just such an animal: wild, free, and dangerous.

She leaned forward and whispered encouragement to Adelita, who was actually trembling. The mare needed no encouragement. "What do you say, [chica]?" Then she cried out, "Come on!" and rode into the midst of the horse band, chasing them, then joining them in a wild, breakneck gallop that lasted forever and taxed both their riding skills and their horses, who, being encumbered, eventually fell behind. Finally, breathless and spent, they swung away to find a place to camp.

Elena rode like she was a part of the horse -- in fact, Duncan hadn't seen her so happy in a long time and was glad they'd come. He knew she was still hiding, and that Bethel was still out there, and that sooner or later Bethel would make his move. He knew she was aware of it, too. But for a few days she was ignoring everything else but the sheer joy of being home, and Duncan was willing to let her be in denial for a while, and even to join her.

And he was right: she was having a wonderful time. Nothing made her feel quite so free and happy as a fast gallop on a good horse. She felt that for a little while she was almost flying; that she was beyond all troubles; that no one could catch her, for example, to take her head. Later she'd think about the heavy price she paid for Immortality. But right now, amidst a band of wild, beautiful horses, galloping next to a man like Duncan MacLeod -- this was her definition of a life worth living!

They hunted, and Duncan discovered that Elena was not a very good shot, but could fish well. That afternoon they were joined by a small group of colorfully-dressed riders. "[Gauchos!]" said Duncan, delighted. He'd been disappointed at not seeing any at the party.

Elena introduced him. Ramon Perez, their leader, said they'd been warned to expect the senorita and the senor, and asked courteously if they could ride with them. As they didn't seem to have any pressing business, Elena agreed to camp together.

That night around the campfire Ramon told a well known story about a roaming band of gauchos from the eighteen hundreds, led by the famous [caudillo] Juan Manuel de Rosas. Duncan caught most of the story; romantic and tragic, full of adventures and bravery. During the telling they passed around the gourd filled with [yerba mate.] Elena had never liked the bitter taste, but she was not one to flaunt tradition, and dutifully drank from the straw before passing it on to Duncan.

While they were still eating and drinking, a young gaucho brought out a stringed instrument and started singing folk songs, full of hardships and lost loves; he was joined by another on a wooden flute and by other singers.

"So tell me, Ramon, what about this black stallion?"

"[El negro?] He is the devil himself, senorita. You saw the harem of eager mares. . ."

While the two talked cattle and horses, Duncan took a long pull on a jug, and coughed as the drink burned its way down to his toes. Then he whispered -- his voice seemed to be gone, anyway -- to the musician, who nodded, and, with a smile, began a tango.

As the words, "[Adios muchachos, companeros, de mi vida. . .]" began, Duncan fluidly rose from his seat by the fire, stood before Elena, and held out his hand, bowing with a flourish. "May I have this dance, senorita?" he asked formally.

"I don't know how to tango," she protested, embarrassed, yet pleased.

"What? And you call yourself an Argentine?" he teased her. "Come on," he said, pulling her to her feet. "Just follow me. I'm an excellent dancer."

She did, and he was, to the delight of the horsemen, and the two of them danced until Elena literally collapsed with exhaustion. But she, too, got her turn at the jug, and at another much like it.

Much later that night, as they lay side by side in their sleeping bags, Elena told Duncan that she'd known this Juan Manuel de Rosas. "He was a brigand, but his story has been romanticized like your Scottish hero. . .what's his name, Rob Roy?"

"Robert Macgregor wasna a brigand!" exclaimed Duncan. He'd drunk enough to take offense -- but not enough to take it too seriously.

Elena had drunk enough to actually giggle. "Don't get your kilt all in a knot, [escoces!]" Her voice was slightly slurred. "Anyway, he wasn't that interesting. The one I really admired was his wife, Dona Encarnacion. She had her own [montonera,] you know, her own gang of riders, and since I couldn't ride with the men -- not and preserve my life and my virtue -- I rode with her for a while, way west of here. She was fearless but a bit too bloodthirsty for my taste. I remember. . ." but about that time the alcohol caught up with her, and she yawned, then quickly sank into a deep, dreamless slumber.

In the morning Elena was able to reverify the fact that Immortals can get drunk and have hangovers, but the gauchos seemed mostly unaffected. Duncan, who had also drunk too much, was pounded happily on the back by the musician from the night before.

"[Para Ud., senor,]" he said, handing Duncan a [boleadora.] It was an Argentine weapon made up of three balls held together by leather thongs and used to trip up and catch game or cattle. The trick was to hold one and swing the other two around one's head, then release it at the target. When Duncan tried it he only succeeded in hitting himself on the head, stunning him briefly and sending the gauchos into gales of laughter.

"Gracias," he said, after several unsuccessful tries, trying to get the ringing out of his ears, handing it back before he took his own head off.

But the man said, "[No, senor. Es para Ud.]"

Duncan started to protest; then, glancing at the others, he realized this was a point of pride for the cowboy. "[Gracias, che,]" he said, accepting the gift.

Elena smiled at him through her headache. "I'm glad you didn't refuse him. He told me he likes the way you dance, and they're impressed by your horsemanship. That's quite a compliment, you know!"

"I know," said Duncan, smiling.

Arm in arm, Elena and Duncan waved goodbye to the gauchos; and after they left Elena slowly turned and kissed him on the cheek, softly, chastely, for the first time since they'd gone to New York. She felt that a knot inside her was slowly, inexorably, being unravelled. It felt so good to be here, back home; so safe; and Elena wondered if she'd ever want to leave. She only wished she could convince Duncan to stay with her for a long while.

Duncan, too, was feeling good, and hoped that Elena's kiss, while very innocent, was maybe the beginning of something more. From the time he'd arrived, except for that one incident with Carmela, things had gone well, and he'd been made to feel like part of a great big family. He could see the effect this place had on Elena. For her it was a sanctuary as prized as any plot of holy ground. In fact, there was a chapel built into the main house itself. But he couldn't forget that they were by no means out of the Game.

The third night they spent at a small cabin near a river, surrounded by a grove of trees that Elena had planted in the nineteenth century. It was a strikingly beautiful spot, and they sat on a large hammock, slung between two trees, a soft evening breeze gently ruffling them, while the horses consumed the tall grasses. "I have so many memories of this place, Duncan. I originally built it to hide Indians who were fighting the Spanish. It's built over a natural cave. We used the stables, too," she pointed through the trees, "to keep their horses and supplies, arms, medicine. Then after I came back from Japan in 1970, I had the cabin modernized. You know -- electricity, running water." She smiled. "I used to bring lovers here, sometimes. My husband, Gordon, just after the American Civil War, when he needed a rest from the killing in his own country." She could see Gordon, with his blond hair, haunted eyes, and his most wonderful smile, standing right in front of her. But Gordon was dead, and so was. . ."Maria. This is the same cabin from which Maria and I ran when we were chased by the Hunters -- was it three years ago already? She was machine gunned in those trees, calling out my name." Why was it that every memory, even the good ones, brought with them the bad ones as well?

She took a deep breath, remembering, and Duncan hugged her tightly, offering silent support.

"They all die, don't they Duncan?" she finally asked in a trembling voice, her cheek against his shoulder.

"Yes," he answered.

"It's hard to keep on living sometimes, knowing that."

"Yes," he repeated, caught up in her melancholy, thinking about others he, too, had buried.

That night she had the original nightmare again, the one which wound up with a head rolling on the ground toward her. But this time, it was Bethel with the machine gun, chasing them through the trees, shooting Maria. And the face she saw on the severed head was, again, her own.

She screamed, and Duncan was there at once, holding her, soothing her. When she got her breathing under control, she said, shakily, "I feel like I'm starting all over again, from the beginning."

"No," Duncan disagreed. "You've made great progress. You're better, stronger. I'm proud of you." She was looser, and more at ease. He was glad they had come.

Translations: (all Spanish)

chica/chico - girl/boy

el loco - the crazy one

el negro - the black

caudillo- leader, in the 19th century, of a band of outlaw Argentine riders

escoces - Scotsman

para Ud. - for you

che - comrade, friend

Three

The fourth night, on their way back, as they lay under the bright southern skies, Elena pushed herself up on her elbow to look at Duncan as he slept. His features were soft, at peace, his long hair laying out over the pillow, a slow, steady breath coming in and out of his partially open lips. By the dying firelight she could just see his right hand -- dark, strong, calloused, she knew, from countless hours of sword practice. His chest rose and fell, and she could imagine, could see in her mind's eye, the muscles there. Her eye drifted down over the sleeping bag, the length of him, strong, long legs, and especially, his most wonderful rear end. . .but she couldn't see his eyes -- his best feature, in her opinion. They were warm brown, and, especially, kind, and they always looked at her with love, and more; with affection, with friendship. It struck her, and not for the first time, how much she valued him as a friend; perhaps even more than as a lover.

But as she felt her pulse start to race, she realized she wasn't thinking of his friendship at this point, or his decency, or his strength. She was thinking of how he used to hold her; how his lips and tongue had played with hers; how his fingers had once twirled in her hair; how he had moved, in rhythm, inside her.

Slowly, hesitantly, she pulled her legs out of her sleeping bag and knelt beside him. As his eyes opened, he reached up above his head to his pack, where he kept his katana, and unerringly took the hilt in his hand. It was an instinctive move, and Elena smiled down at him -- but she was nervous, too. In the nearly three weeks she'd been back in Seacouver he had been generous with physical affection -- but it was all brotherly stuff, comfort, support. He hadn't made any sexual move toward her, and she understood why, and loved him for it. He was giving her time, giving her the option.

And yet, now she wondered how he really felt about her. She wondered if her physical and emotional mutilation at the hands of Claude Bethel would be a turn-off for Duncan, would cause him to reject her. She wondered, as Carmela had pointed out, if his male ego could really stand having *his* woman raped, and if he would hold it against her. She wondered, too, whether she could stand to have him touch her. And if she couldn't -- what then? But, as always with Duncan MacLeod, it came down to trust. She trusted that he'd be honest with her -- "The truth between us, always," they'd said. But honesty was a double-edged sword, and the potential for hurting her was tremendous. One part of her wanted nothing to do with any man, nothing that would remind her of the frequent, painful, brutal violations Bethel had subjected her to. However, if he -- Duncan MacLeod -- turned away from her, it would break her heart. In a way, it was like starting over for them; for her, at least. And she had to know. She had to know what his reaction would be -- and what hers would be, too. And there was only one way to find out.

She smiled down at him, waiting, trusting, and not knowing quite what to hope for.

When Duncan sensed an Immortal move close, he came awake at once, and in the brief instant between sleep and conscious wakefulness, he instinctively reached for his weapon. Hilt in hand, he looked straight up at Elena Duran. She was kneeling over him, outlined against the dark sky, panting slightly. By the scant light of the dying fire he could just make out the pale oval of her face, the even whiter slice of her smile. He couldn't see her expression, but her body language was tense, as though she were waiting. Releasing the katana, he relaxed and silently smiled at her.

He smiled! she thought happily, and it was a warm smile, a welcoming smile; so she took his face in her hands, bent down and kissed him on the lips. And this was not the soft, friendly kiss of the day before. And he certainly didn't pull back. She could instantly feel his desire, his wanting of her. [!Gracias a Dios!] she thought. Now that she knew that part of it. . .

Duncan stirred slightly, tentatively answering her kiss, responding, but slowly, with restraint -- even though he felt the heat fill his body at once. After a long kiss she leaned back, still smiling down at him, and removed her blouse and bra while he unzipped his sleeping bag, opening it up to give her room to lie next to him. Her breasts hung down as she opened the buttons of his shirt, and he reached up and touched them, making her hesitate, drawing back with remembered pain, making him hesitate in turn.

For a moment they were frozen. Duncan was deeply, passionately aroused, but as soon as he'd felt her resistance he released her without hesitation. This was her dance. . .or not.

Finally, with a bitter pang, Elena moved away. She was aware of his desire, but couldn't allow him to touch her. Bethel had touched her breasts, hurt them, savaged them, and she couldn't get that memory, that pain, out of her head. She knelt on the sleeping bag beside him, naked from the waist up, and buried her face in her hands. She let out one long, low groan, struggling between present lust and remembered fear. The memories won out. "Duncan. . ." she breathed, shaking her head. "I'm sorry."

He rushed to reassure her. "It's alright, [querida.] Whatever, whenever you want. We have time." He started to reach up to touch her bare back, then changed his mind. "You decide." His voice was hoarse, and only part of that had to do with sex. The other part was anger, rage at Claude Bethel for what he'd done to her, to both of them. He controlled it with an effort, hoping she hadn't heard that in his voice.

She heard the desire, and she turned to look at his face. The night was so dark! If only she could see his eyes -- the warmth there, the kindness, she knew, would reassure her, assuage her fears. But she didn't really have to see them, she realized. She could imagine them, remember them, and she knew his kindness, his patience, his love. This was not Claude Bethel! He wouldn't hurt her! But. . .

She took a deep, ragged breath, picked up her blouse and put it back on, and lay stiffly back down on the sleeping bag. It was a long time before either of them fell asleep.

Duran [estancia] outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 10, 1997, 7 p.m.

Elena and Duncan rode up to the main house and Juanito met them outside the door. It was obvious that they had been expected. While a boy took their horses, Juanito said, "Senorita -- something has happened."

Puzzled by the worried look on his face, and fearing the worst, Elena and Duncan followed him into the parlor. On the way Elena met the frightened glance of one of the maids and stopped, asking the girl, "Francesca; what's wrong? What's happened?"

"Please, senorita," Juanito answered. "Let me explain in private." He looked at Duncan as they entered the large room.

Elena could feel her heart start to pound. "If it concerns Immortals, I want Senor MacLeod to be here."

Juanito nodded, then said, "A man came looking for you."

Bethel! It took all of Elena's self-control to keep from running screaming from the room, but Juanito continued. "It's the Italian, Galieri. He's come back."

Not Bethel! It wasn't Bethel! she thought. Elena felt such a wave of relief she was afraid she would faint. She sat on the sofa and took a deep breath. This was bad -- Galieri was bad; any Immortal at this point was bad -- but [!gracias a Dios!] it wasn't Claude Bethel. She looked at Juanito, saw the surprise on his face, and realized he'd never seen her afraid before, never doubted her before. . .and that Carmela must have told him something. But Juanito was still looking to her for protection against Immortals. And why not? He'd been there before, when the unnamed Immortal came. . .

Duran [estancia], outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, October, 1970

Rodrigo Onioco has been killed by a sword, just outside the door. He is cradled by his crying wife, and when Elena gets there the body is still warm. And there's a pistol on the ground next to them.

Elena draws her sword and walks into the almost deserted house, all senses alert. The sensation of the Immortal is at once everywhere and nowhere special. She sees movement behind a chair, but knows it isn't the Immortal. It's Juanito, his eyes wide with terror. The boy points to the double parlor doors, and Elena nods. "Trust me," she says, low so that only he can hear, then gestures behind her for him to leave. He runs out silently. She can hear sobs from beyond the doors. Taking a deep breath, concentrating, Elena kicks the doors open, and they slam back against the walls.

Her heart thudding in her throat, she looks straight into the room at Carmela, who is bound, gagged and blindfolded, her head down and bleeding -- but no longer crying. Elena's first instinct is to rush into the room to help the woman. She resists it. Instead, she calls out, "Carmela," and the woman turns her blind face to her left -- and Elena rushes through the door, blocking to her right.

The Immortal snarls, "I should have killed the bitch when I had the chance -- let you come in and stare at a dead body!"

"No more dead bodies -- except for yours," Elena answers softly. Carmela, the boy, the dead man at the door, are all forgotten. Nothing matters except the man before her.

The Immortal is dark, slim and angular, strong looking. He wields a sword and dagger and has a gunshot wound, healed, in his chest. His first thrust blocked, he backs away from her. "Do you know that one of your fucking animals shot me, right at the door? Shot me!!"

Elena feels sick with anger and impotence. No, [Dios mio!] No! she thinks. Not this! Her people, mortals, attacking an Immortal! What had she said to them, over and over. She'd made them promise not to interfere! Damn it!

"But now I understand why there are so many of them here. You're a damn Indian yourself, aren't you?"

Elena smiles grimly. "I have that honor."

"Well, shall we take this outside, [cabecita negra]? I wouldn't want your quickening to destroy all the lovely items I intend to take with me."

/////

When the quickening is over, the boy is in the parlor. He has untied his grandmother, and Elena suspects he's seen more than he should.

Elena walks in slowly, still weak, stained with her blood and his, and asks Carmela, "Who shot him?"

"Rodrigo," Carmela answers, looking down, her face white with grief and shame.

Grief, despair, anger, and, especially, guilt. Elena wonders how it's possible to feel all these emotions at once and still feel so cold. She takes Carmela's arm and pulls her aside roughly, whispering harshly in her face. "You broke your promise. The Immortal came for me, and Rodrigo shot him. Now Rodrigo is dead. And it could have been worse." She pauses to let that sink in, to let it be Carmela's and the others' punishment. Rodrigo is -- was -- Carmela's nephew; one of their own. "Don't let it happen again. Ever."

"No," Carmela swallows thickly.

As Elena leaves the room, Juanito looks at her with worshipful eyes. "He said you were afraid, senorita, but I told him he was wrong."

She turns at the door and looks at Juanito. "No, [nino]. He was right."

Duran [estancia] outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 10, 1996

Elena glanced at Duncan before speaking, hoping her voice would be steady, hating herself for her fear, her weakness. "I trust you handled it in the usual way."

"I followed your orders, of course. But Galieri wanted to know exactly where you were. He was very insistent, and didn't want to leave!"

Duncan, who had been listening intently, stepped forward in alarm, and Elena stood, breathless. "Did he hurt anyone?" she asked.

"He grabbed Francesca, but only scared her. He didn't hurt her; but only, I think, because we were armed. He said he would return." Juanito spoke softly. "He said if he came back and you were not here, someone would pay, and he wasn't particular who." Juan Onioco was a rancher and a farmer, not used to dealing with threats from a centuries-old Immortal. Elena could see how shook up he was. "Senorita Duran, I have never questioned you. . ."

"But you're about to do so now," she interrupted.

"We have women and children here!" His voice had risen slightly, and she could hear the desperation in it.

"Don't you think I know that?" she asked him angrily, moving towards him instinctively. She was afraid for them, furious at Galieri, and furious at herself. The only one she wasn't angry at was Juanito, and yet here she was, bullying him, taking it out on him. He took a step back. "I'm responsible for them, and for you, and I haven't forgotten that, [che!]"

Duncan said, "Did he leave an address? A place to meet?"

Juanito shook his head, and Elena said, "I don't need to go looking for him, Duncan. He knows where I am. If he comes again," Elena still had her attention on Juanito, "bring him to me." She hoped she sounded more confident than she felt. She felt guilty about being afraid, and about yelling at him.

"I am sorry, senorita, if I have offended you in any way," he said.

Elena took a deep breath, then said, "I made an arrangement many years ago with the Onioco family. I have always kept my part of the bargain. Do you doubt me now?" she asked him.

"Of course not," Juanito answered -- but maybe he did doubt her. And what was worse, even if he didn't know it, was that she doubted herself.

"Juanito. Do you trust me?"

"I have trusted you, Mariaelena Duran, since I was ten years old."

"Good." He remembered, too. "Then trust me to take care of Galieri. No one else is to go near him. No one." Her voice was softer now; it had lost its edge. It wasn't his fault that he'd gotten scared. She was just angry that *she'd* gotten scared, again.

"[Muy bien, senorita.]"

After Juanito left, Elena looked at Duncan and gestured for him to follow. She led him to her workout studio. As always, he was drawn to the wall with the weapons display. He noted with interest that she had some museum quality pieces.

"This is quite a collection," he began, and as he turned he saw her standing in the center of the room, katana in hand.

"Galieri will be back," she said, in a small voice.

"You're right," agreed Duncan, nodding. "We can't get away from the Game -- not even in the wilds of Argentina."

"I don't think. . .I don't know if I can defeat him." She had to force the words out, words she hated to say. "I don't even know if I can face him," she added, feeling weak, cowardly.

But if Duncan thought she was being a coward, he didn't give any sign of it. "But you don't have to face him, Elena. When he comes, I'll take him for you."

This is what she wanted to hear from him, this reassurance. She would love Duncan to fight Galieri for her! But now that Duncan had offered; now that she knew that, with a word, she could avoid fighting the Italian, she felt better, more secure.

But let's think about this, Elena, she said to herself. What's the worst thing that could happen? If Galieri took her head, what would be the great tragedy in that? She'd die fighting. There were worse ways to die, and, for an Immortal, none better. For instance, she could have died slowly, in agony, strapped to the chair in Claude Bethel's basement. And she wasn't particularly pleased that Duncan automatically assumed he'd do her fighting for her. Did she really want to ask him to do it?

Now that the shoe was on the other foot, she remembered how angry he'd gotten when Barada had come for him. . .

Translations: (all Spanish)

gracias a Dios - thank God

Dios mio - my God

cabecita negra - (Span.) - black head -- disparaging name given by Argentine whites to the darker Indians

nino/nina - boy/girl

muy bien - very good; fine

Four

Seacouver, September 20, 1996

Elena is trying to show Miyu a kata when she senses an Immortal. Assuming it's Duncan, she doesn't turn to the door -- then recognizes her mistake in Miyu's wide eyes.

Elena looks over her shoulder. The man is tall -- taller than Duncan -- and stands in the doorway arrogantly. In his hand -- not even hidden away -- is a longsword. Elena glances at her own broadsword lying nearby, within easy reach, and says, "Go upstairs, [chiquita.]" Without taking her eyes off the Immortal, she closes the elevator doors to send the child upstairs, then turns back to him.

"I want Duncan MacLeod."

"Don't we all?" she answers, in a mocking tone.

"Who are you -- his whore?"

"I'm his guardian angel," she answers, refusing to be rattled.

"So the great Duncan MacLeod has women protecting him!" he laughs. "I always suspected wearing skirts was for cowards and women only." He leers at her openly. "I am Achmed Barada. After I take his head, I'll replace him in his bed, and show you what a real man is like."

Elena smiles. "You're a poet!" she says, feigning delight, amused even more by his puzzled look. "Head rhymes with bed. Also with Achmed. And, of course, it rhymes with *dead.*"

"Dead? I like the sound of that. Perhaps I should have MacLeod come in and find *you* dead."

Elena slides to her right and languidly picks up her broadsword. But before she can answer, they both sense the buzz, and Duncan comes into the dojo behind them. "Am I interrupting anything?" he asks. The mildness of his tone is deceptive. Elena knows him well enough to hear the danger in his voice.

The Immortal turns. "Duncan MacLeod?" he asks.

"I'm Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. And you are?"

"My name is Achmed Barada, and I'm here for your head. Your whore was just entertaining me while we waited, telling me how she protects you. I'm sure she'll entertain me again after I behead you."

Elena sees the muscles in Duncan's jaw clench, but his voice is still mild. "This is hardly the time and place. How about midnight tonight at the West End pier?"

"Are you sure you'll be there?" Barada mocks. "Or will you send the woman instead?"

"I'll be there," answers Duncan, an edge in his voice this time.

The Immortal shrugs. "I know where you live. Midnight." With a curt nod, he pushes past Duncan.

As soon as he clears the dojo doors, Duncan approaches Elena. "Just what the hell did you think you were doing?" he says, right in her face.

"Me?" she asks innocently. "He came in here with an attitude, and you know what a smart mouth I have. . ."

"He came here looking for me, and in the future, you will keep your smart mouth shut!"

He's furious, and for a moment Elena thinks he's taking his anger at Barada out on her. But then she realizes he's angry at her, too. And she realizes her mistake. And she realizes why he's angry. Damn, she thinks. "Duncan," she begins placatingly, "I didn't mean to. . ."

"What -- are you going to do my fighting for me now, too? Is that it?"

"No, [querido,] listen. . ."

"I won't let you fight for me, Elena!" he hisses at her, taking her uniform in his fist and pulling her close. She can feel his hot breath on her face. His eyes are shiny and so full of raw rage, for a moment she's actually afraid. "And I won't let you die for me, either! Do you understand?"

Duncan remembers having this same conversation with Amanda when she tried to kill Kalas for him. At the time, Amanda's feelings were hurt and she ran out of the barge in tears. Elena is a different person, and has a different reaction. But Duncan's reaction is the same: he is infuriated at her assumption that he needs her help, at her interference in his battles, and, especially, at the danger she places herself in for his sake.

"I understand that I wasn't going to let him kill me, [escoces!] Now let me go!" she spits out.

He does, with a push that send her staggering backwards. "Stay the hell out of my fights, Elena! Understood!?"

She understands his fury, and so, in spite of her own anger, she tries again. "Look, Duncan. . ."

"I said, do you understand?" Elena wishes he would raise his voice, but he doesn't; he's frightening in his calm control, and she's reminded of the time she saw him fight, and why he has a reputation. "I understand," she murmurs. And with that he goes past her and into the elevator.

Duran [estancia] outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 10, 1996

Elena wondered why Duncan had a double standard, one for himself and one for others, and was tempted to say something about it. The problem was, he hadn't needed her then -- may he never had needed her -- but she did need him now. Or did she? She shook her head. "Even if you do, this time. . .you can't keep protecting me forever, Duncan. And you can't fight for me. Sooner or later, I'll have to get back in the Game. Deliberately. I might as well do it now." There, she said it. But did she mean it?

"You can wait until you're stronger," he answered. But he was pleased that she was facing him with a blade, again, and that she was talking about fighting! He searched her face, saw the fear there -- but it was pushed inside herself, controlled, and this encouraged him even more. If she was willing to fight in spite of her fear -- this was a good thing! However, he decided that he would kill Galieri for her, whether she agreed or not. If he could do nothing else for her, he would at least do this, kill this Immortal for her.

He pulled out his katana, and they bowed to each other, then took their stances. Elena licked dry lips, feeling slightly nauseous, remembering how he'd hurt her before. She was calling forth all her courage and determination, and this was just for a spar! With a man who loved her and wouldn't really harm her! If she could just manage her fear, however, she'd be able to give and get a good workout. Taking a deep breath, then letting it out, she made her first cut.

/////

They stepped up their training, but Elena still had not recovered her full strength, tiring easily. She fought like a tigress, however, to hold onto her sword, and so Duncan made that his specific point of attack, enveloping it when he could, trying to muscle or wrestle or strike it out of her hand, giving her a choice of keeping it or being hurt, blade versus pain, knowing pain was something she still feared far too much.

"It's not so much the pain itself, Duncan. I've felt pain before; it comes with the territory. It just reminds me of him; of what he did. It's a mental block, a psychological thing: pain equals Claude B- Bethel."

"You have to disconnect those two in your mind, Elena. Pain is just pain; it means you made a mistake, that's all," he answered, panting slightly. He was succeeding in pressing her, but she wasn't making it easy.

"Easier said than done," she answered, panting more heavily, sliding a blow along her blade that still left her numb from wrist to shoulder. "Don't you ever get tired, [escoces]?" she grumbled.

"No," he grinned. "I'm an Immortal. Remember?" He shifted to her right side, forcing her to turn too quickly to try to keep him in sight. Too tired to compensate, she lost her footing; he closed and pushed her back; and she fell.

He gave her a hand up. "Let's call it a day."

"You know, you can be quite a bully. I had never seen this side of you."

"No, Elena," he said, seriously. "You've never really seen my bad side. Ask Richie," he said, turning away from her.

She immediately sensed his changed mood. The two had talked about his dark quickening, but not extensively, and she knew that Duncan would never, in all his life, forgive himself for having attacked Richie Ryan. She held out her hand to him. It was crusted with dried blood. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked.

Duncan smiled slightly. "No. I'm fine." This was not the time to bring up his troubles -- and he couldn't very well expect her to let go of the past and move on if he didn't try to do the same.

"Then, how about dinner? I'm hungry."

"Good idea," he answered.

After cleaning up, they sat down on the patio. Francesca brought them each a drink, and Duncan took a sip. "Glenmorangie?" he asked.

"I asked them to get single malt scotch. This is the wilds of Argentina, after all," she replied.

"It'll do, sweetheart," he said, smiling at her.

They were walking to the dining room, still sipping their drinks. Elena had just noted, with some, almost forgotten spark of pleasure, that Duncan was wearing tight jeans. They clung to his hard thighs and taut buttocks. This had always been a part of him she liked, admired, enjoyed -- but it had been so long since she had noticed any man in this way -- even this man, whom she loved so deeply. The aborted scene on the sleeping bags on the [pampa] reminded her of what she had; of what she had lost; maybe, if God was good, of what she would someday regain.

When Francesca came in with a telephone, Elena froze with apprehension. Who knew they were here?

"It's for you, senorita. A Senor Bethel."

Elena's glass shattered loudly on the tile floor. She made no move toward the phone. "No," she whispered, almost audibly.

Duncan handed his drink to Francesca and took the telephone. "Bethel," he said, "where are you?" His voice was even, almost pleasant. He'd been expecting this, and was not going to let Bethel anger him. With his other hand, he took Elena's wrist, gripping it tightly, holding her in place. She couldn't keep running away. She had to face Bethel eventually, and this was a relatively safe way to do it.

"Why, Duncan MacLeod!" Bethel sounded pleased. "Are you protecting the little lady? Is she too terrified to talk to me?" He chuckled.

"Sorry. You'll have to deal with me this time."

"Why not? I've already dealt with your kinsman, Connor MacLeod. A most powerful quickening."

For an instant Duncan lost the ability to breathe. But then he said, "You're such a lying bastard."

"Suit yourself. Oh, and tell Elena that I'm here in Buenos Aires. I'll take her from you, Highlander, if it's the last thing I do."

"Come and try me, Bethel. I'll be waiting." But as he was saying this, Elena spun out of his grasp and ran out the patio doors.

"I'll shoot you, but I won't take your head. I want you to be alive and think about how I'll take her and burn her and cut her and fuck her until I get tired of her. Then I'll behead her! It's very. . . satisfying."

"You're a sick son of a. . ." But Bethel had hung up. For a moment, Duncan was torn between calling Connor and going after Elena. "Connor can take care of himself," he had told her. He compromised by shoving the phone into his pocket and going after her. He couldn't sense her presence, but she couldn't have gone far. Besides, it was a big place. Following a hunch, he headed toward the stables, and as he got close he could hear the horses' agitation. He sensed an Immortal.

Juanito called to him. "!Senor!" He came up to Duncan so he could speak privately. "She's in the stables. Julia came running out of there. She has her sword, senor."

Duncan wasn't sure what Elena had in mind, but he said, "It's alright, Juanito. She won't hurt anyone." At least, I hope not, he said to himself. "I'll talk to her."

When he found her she was squatting in the hay, her katana laid across her legs. She was very still. It was too dark to really see her face. As he came near, she had no reaction, but he didn't want to spook her, so he kept his distance, crouching across from her. All around them the horses were disturbed, and he knew how sensitive these animals were to human emotion, tension. He wondered if he were causing their distress as much as she was. He was outwardly calm, but inside he was worried about exactly what she was going to do; and afraid of what he might have to do. As he looked at her, it struck him that, unlike her, he was not armed, but he hadn't exactly wanted to approach her with a sword in his hand, either.

"Elena," he whispered. Although she had to have sensed his approach, she seemed to notice him for the first time. If he could only see her face!

"Duncan. I have been sitting here, wondering how I could take my own head. I'm sure it's been done before -- I'd just never given it much consideration."

Duncan's breath caught. Her voice was cold, devoid of all emotion, of all life. It was one of the emptiest, loneliest sounds he'd ever heard.

"A katana is very sharp, but I couldn't draw across my own neck. I would cut my throat, but that would be it. I thought maybe if I wedged it somehow I could fall on it -- but it's so light, I don't think it would work. Maybe an ax." She turned her face toward him. "I don't suppose you would do this for me, would you? Take my head?"

Duncan was chilled to his very soul. For all the animation in her voice, she could have been asking him if he wanted wine with his dinner. "No, Elena! Of course not! Don't even ask me! I want you to stop talking like this!"

"No, I didn't think so. Juanito might do it, but. . .I don't think so."

Maybe this was an approach, he thought. He forced calm into his voice. "Juanito's worried about you, Elena. So is Carmela. They all care about you."

"Yes, I know. But I can't do anything more for them. I can't even do anything for myself. Not even this!" She made a harsh sound, halfway between a laugh and a sob, then was silent again.

"They're not looking for you to do anything for them, Elena. They just want you to be better, to be back to normal. So do I." He could hear the desperation in his own voice. If only he could get some reaction out of her!

"Normal?" She paused for a moment. "You know, I could put my head on a railroad track, like Anna Karenina. That would work, don't you think?"

Duncan shuddered, remembering an Immortal named Mikey; and another Immortal, Carlos Sendaro. They had both been killed by trains, and he knew from experience that it would work, quite nicely. "Stop it, Elena!" he said, rising to his feet. "How can you even consider this? How can you let him win like this?"

"He's already won." Her voice was still calm and steady. "I'm defeated. Ask Carmela. She knows."

She crouched, unmoving, almost not breathing, dead in every way but the physical. For the first time in a long time, Duncan had no real idea what to say or do. She was scaring him with her lack of any feeling, and he had no idea how to get a rise out of her -- or if he could -- or even if he should. He opened his mouth once, changed his mind, then started to say something else -- but nothing seemed like the right thing to say.

Five

Finally he came up with this: "If you've really given up, then you don't need me anymore to push you. I'll find Bethel and kill him, if Connor doesn't beat me to it. Do you want me to go?" It was a gamble; in his heart he hoped, prayed that she would say no, say yes, say anything!

She said nothing.

He stood and walked a few paces toward her, feeling empty and aching at the same time. "I'll leave tomorrow, then," he said, paused, and when she didn't answer, turned away.

He walked back outside, defeated. That *was* a good word. He couldn't really leave, of course, not leave her like this! Should he have taken the katana? At least he felt relatively sure that she couldn't kill herself -- not permanently, anyway.

Near the stable doors he was met by Juanito. Carmela, too, had come, and was standing behind her grandson.

"How is she, senor? What has happened to her? How can we help her?" Juanito asked. Duncan could hear the desperation, in Juanito's voice this time.

"She'll have to tell you herself what happened. I don't know if you can help her, or if I can. Or if anyone can. She. . .she's given up. Maybe. . ." he let out a long breath. He thought about asking Carmela to go to Elena; then he remembered the katana. Maybe he should have tried to take it from her. Maybe sending Carmela in would be a mistake. "Maybe you should just stay away for a while; give her some time to herself. Give her some room. Maybe if we wait for a while. . ." He was used to taking charge, to action; now he felt so lost, so impotent. Maybe he shouldn't have left her alone.

"Senor," Carmela asked. Duncan could just make out the tears in her eyes, heard the pain in her voice. "[Por favor. . .]"

Duncan interrupted. "I'm sorry; I don't know what to do for her, Carmela." He heard the pain in his own voice.

"I will go to her. She will not hurt me."

He wondered if Carmela was trying to convince herself. Well, it might be for the best. He sighed, shook his head, and said, "Alright. But be careful," then stood aside, waiting with Juanito. There was nothing to say. As they stood there, waiting, Duncan remembered the phone and patted his shirt pocket. The phone.

He started to call Connor, then thought about Bethel, and the phone call, and suddenly something occurred to him. Bethel's voice, the static on the line. . .more than the normal Argentine static. It hadn't been a local call at all! It had been a long distance call! Armed with that information, hoping it would help, Duncan went back inside the barn. It *had* been a long distance call. Bethel hadn't called from Buenos Aires! He'd called from New York! He had lied! He wasn't here -- and he wasn't coming! Duncan was convinced of it.

He found Carmela kneeling near Elena, talking to her in low, urgent tones, too quietly for him to make out. Elena hadn't moved.

The old woman reached out with both hands, but found it impossible to hug someone holding a sharp blade in front of her body. Carmela's hands fluttered, then she settled for stroking Elena's cheek.

"Marielenita. Talk to me. Please. Let me help you."

No reaction. No movement. Elena was in her own world, and Duncan wondered if he could reach her. If anyone could.

"Carmela," he said softly, then came to kneel on Elena's other side. The old woman put her hand on Elena's knee.

Duncan chose his words carefully. "Elena, you can't run away from Bethel anymore." No answer. "And you won't have to. I don't think he's coming for you at all."

The night sounds and the barn sounds broke the stillness of the summer night. He waited for minutes, despairing. Then she said, "Because you're protecting me."

If there was sarcasm in her voice, he didn't hear it. He didn't hear fear, either. But at least she was talking to him, reacting.

He spoke quickly, urgently. "No, it's more than that. I think I'm beginning to understand him. Bethel attacks by surprise, by ambush. Joe Dawson told me Bethel's never even been in a swordfight. But he can't do that this time because I. . .because we're expecting him." She said nothing, and he continued. "He lied when he just said he was here in Argentina. Just like he lied when he said, just now, on the phone, that he'd killed Connor. He lied to me, just like he lied to you, over and over again. That was a long distance phone call. He's still in New York. And he's not coming for you."

He wanted to pace up and down, trying to express this gut certainty of what Bethel was doing, but forced himself to stay close to her. Elena had always come through when pressured. He had to keep pushing. "In his own sick way, he's proud of his. . .work. But you -- you got away from him, Elena, and there's nothing he can do about it except call you and torment you." He moved even closer to her. He could see the rise and fall of her chest, the dark shadow of her hair, the black eyepatch against her face. She didn't move, but he thought that somehow she had heard him. He considered his words. "Bethel's lied about everything, and he's still lying! Think about it, sweetheart. He's a man without honor, without mercy; a man who enjoys destroying others. He's a coward, and a liar many times over." Yes, it did make sense to him! "Why would you believe anything such a man said?"

("Believe me, Elena. Believe me and the pain will end.")

He answered his own question. "Because he caused you pain. Except he can't hurt you anymore, Elena." He saw her suddenly grip the hilt of the katana. He was very aware of the blade in her hand, of how easily she could strike out at him if it occurred to her, and especially, how easily she could kill the old woman kneeling on her other side. He motioned for Carmela to move away. The old woman hesitated, questioning him; then slowly, painfully rose to her feet and moved back.

Looking closely at Elena, exerting the full force of his personality, willing her to answer, he continued. "Except here," he finished, touching his index finger to her temple. "This is the only way he can hurt you. Don't let him, Elena. Please." He waited patiently.

It had been so easy, just to let go, just to let Bethel win. Now Duncan was talking to her, making her think again, making her feel again. And Carmela. . .Carmela was here, too, talking to her. Elena didn't want to talk, or think, or feel. She was in a deep, empty space, alone, with no one hurting her -- or trying to *help* her. If she stayed here, by herself, no one could reach her; no one could touch her. "Please go away, Duncan. Both of you. Just let me be."

Had he heard something in her voice? he wondered. Some spark? Some interest? Maybe even annoyance. He'd settle for that, too. "Is that what you really want?"

"I want to die."

Keep her talking, he thought. "Maybe you do, right now. There have been times for me, too, when I've been so full of grief, of despair. When I've wanted to give up. But it's not so easy, is it? And somehow, there's always a reason to want to live. There's a reason . . . if you look for it."

She was quiet for a long time. She was having trouble thinking, especially since she really didn't want to. She wished they would just go away. She became aware of the sword in her hand. If she struck at him, he'd be forced to defend himself. Maybe he'd take her head. Maybe. . .[!Dios mio!]

Then, out of the blue, something occurred to her; something completely unexpected. What had Duncan said about Connor? "What about Connor?" she asked.

Connor? Yes! Duncan thought. "Connor's alive. I know it," he rushed to assure her. Actually, Duncan didn't know it, anymore than he'd known absolutely that Elena was alive when everyone else had given up on her. He just had a strong. . .hunch. "If it will make you feel better, I'll call Connor, right now." And it would make him feel better, too. "But I haven't had much luck reaching him recently. He's hunting. . .remember?"

Hunting, she thought. Connor was hunting. She took a deep breath; let it out. Why was Duncan bothering her like this? It was so much easier not to have to think, to feel -- just fade into nothingness. . .

Duncan dialed Connor's number, and they waited for the international call to go through, inside the stables, strong with the smell of horse and sweat and hay and manure. It was a good smell, and one that brought comfort and good memories to Duncan. And he knew she felt the same way. She just had to be reminded.

He pushed a stray wisp of her hair back. It was starting to grow, but so slowly that it would be years before it grew out again -- provided she survived for years; provided she survived this night.

He didn't have much luck reaching Connor.

"I told you it would be hard; but it doesn't mean anything. Bethel called from New York. I heard him. He's not coming. He can't defeat you." Duncan was still trying to convince her. He was so close to her he could tell her eyes were closed. "Come on, Elena. Come back to the house with me. Everyone's worried about you. Carmela's here. She wants to help you. We'll talk."

She shook her head softly. Why wouldn't he just leave her alone? "Just go away, Duncan. Go away and leave me alone."

"I don't want to leave you, sweetheart. I love you. Come with me."

He felt he was making some progress, but she was still shaking her head. "But what if you're wrong, Duncan? What if he did kill Connor and he does come for me?"

"I'm not wrong. Please believe me. Please trust me. No -- please trust yourself, Elena. What I'm saying makes sense. Think about it."

But she couldn't think about it; she didn't want to think about it, or about anything else. A moment before, she could feel nothing. Now she was starting to feel overwhelmed, being drawn along in the current of Duncan's personality -- and she'd lost complete control of her feelings, her actions.

He carefully extricated the katana from her hand. "Bethel won't come. But I'll stay with you, if you want, if it will make you feel better."

He started to help her to her feet, slowly, but she resisted. "No, I don't. . .I want to stay here. I'm so tired, Duncan."

"I know. We can stay here, if you like. I'll call Connor again. In the meantime, why don't you try to get some rest?"

She sat down onto the hay, heavily, and Duncan said one word to Carmela, who found a horse blanket to place over Elena. Slowly he pushed her down, covering her, soothing her, stroking her face, her hair.

Elena's mind was a swirl of thoughts and emotions. She couldn't think, couldn't concentrate, and couldn't quite bring herself to believe that Bethel wouldn't come for her. As long as he was alive, she'd live in a world of uncertainty and fear. But Duncan said he wouldn't come. . .but Bethel said. . .

("Why would you believe anything such a man said?")

It was too much to think about! If she could only rest for a moment, just for a while. "Duncan!"

He hadn't left her side. "I'm right here, [querida.]"

"You said you would leave me. I want you to stay, but you said. . ."

"No. If you want me, I'll stay. I promise." And he stayed with her all night, dozing on the hay beside her, afraid to fall asleep; but there was no disturbance in the night. She sank into a heavy sleep, dreamless as far as he could tell, almost without moving, without any of the thrashing that usually accompanied her [pesadillas,] her nightmares. The next morning he carried her into the house and laid her on her own bed. She slept into the day and night, and when Carmela finally persuaded him to rest, he made her promise faithfully to call him if Elena woke up.

Translations: (all Spanish)

por favor - please

Dios mio - my God

Six

Duran [estancia] outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 18, 1996, 4 a.m.

Elena was strapped to the chair. She could feel the bones in her knee knitting, slowly, agonizingly, popping together back into place from where Bethel had shattered it a few moments before. She whimpered. Opening her eyes through a pain-filled haze, she looked across and saw. . .Miyu! Miyu was here, [!Dios mio!] she's here, she can help me escape, we can both get away! Elena thought, frantically. But as she opened her mouth to speak she saw the Immortal standing behind Miyu and Elena started to warn the child, to tell her to run, to forget about everything else. But he put his hand on Miyu's shoulder. Elena could clearly see the thick wrist of a swordsmaster. The hand dug into the girl's shoulder painfully, and spun her around roughly. In slow motion, Elena followed the hand up the arm, to the elbow, the shoulder. . .then she saw the Immortal's face. It was full of hate and lust, all aimed at the little girl in his grasp. It was not Bethel.

It was Connor MacLeod.

"No!" Elena cried out, sitting up in bed, her breath gasping and thick, her hair and nightgown plastered to her body, her heart sick and pounding unevenly. She was in bed -- in bed, in her own bed! It was a nightmare, nothing more, thank you, God, it wasn't true, it wasn't real!

She sobbed; and then she heard a nearby voice, a quiet, soothing voice, saying in Spanish, "It's alright, senorita. You're safe. You're in your own house. No one can hurt you here -- no one. You'll be fine."

She knew this voice. She thought about it, trying to calm herself. Someone came to sit down on the bed and pushed a glass into her hand.

"Drink," the voice said. "It will make you feel better."

It was cold. She drank greedily, looking at the man sitting next to her. Juanito Onioco used a hand towel to blot her forehead, and when a stray breeze came in through the window and chilled her, he quickly covered her up with a robe.

"You're alright," he murmured again. "You're safe. No one will hurt you. I promise you."

She focused on him, sitting so close. He took the glass from her hand. By the light of some nearby source, she could see his smile.

"Do you want me to get [la abuela?] or MacLeod?"

"No!" she answered, clutching at his arm, making him spill the water. "Stay with me," she asked him.

"Of course," he immediately agreed. For long minutes they sat, she still clutching his arm, getting her breathing and her emotions under control. She was home, in her own house, in her own bed. She was safe. And Juanito Onioco sat next to her, silent, unmoving, undemanding. He wasn't asking her to understand him, or to listen to him, or to protect him. He wasn't pressuring her, or asking her to be brave, to be strong, to pick up a sword. He was simply there with her quietly in the dark, in the middle of the night, when she woke up from a horrible nightmare; calming her by his presence alone.

Just the day before she wouldn't have welcomed his presence at all. She remembered very clearly squatting in the barn. She'd been on an empty, windswept plain, much like the [pampa,] except devoid of all life, of everyone else. She'd been all alone with her thoughts of death -- pleasant thoughts, as she recalled. No one hassled her there. Bethel didn't exist, couldn't hurt her; MacLeod didn't exist, couldn't pressure her, bother her. But it was a make believe place, and the only way to reach it again was by embracing death, and now. . .now she no longer wanted to do that.

For long moments she and Juanito sat together, and as the terror finally left her she released his arm. Her tense body sagged, and he asked her, "What can I do for you, senorita?"

Her mouth was dry. She asked for a drink and he stood up, refilled her glass, and handed it to her again. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and drained the glass in several swallows.

"Gracias, Juanito," she mumbled.

"It's my pleasure, senorita," he answered quietly.

"No. I really mean it. I. . ." She didn't know what to say, how to say it. She felt humbled; humiliated in front of these people who trusted her, believed in her, who looked to her for strength, for help. And she had no idea how they would react to her weakness. And she didn't want to deal with it right now, or with him.

"Senorita, may I. . .tell me what I can do for you. You have done so much for us."

"So now you're watching over me."

"We felt you should not be alone."

"Wonderful. Pity is just what I need." She fought back with sarcasm.

"No, senorita. I think you need. . .support. Love."

She shook her head. He didn't understand. "Juanito, you just don't know. . ." she began, then drifted off.

"No, of course not. I don't have your experiences. I haven't suffered like you have. And whatever it is that has hurt you so badly. . ." he paused.

She didn't want to hear this; didn't want to know. But she had to know. She sat up straighter. "Go on, Juanito. Just say it."

"Never mind. I will get [la abuela] now." He stood, and she stood with him.

"Please." She couldn't remember ever using that word with Juan Onioco. And really meaning it. "Please; just tell me where I stand with you. I need. . .I need to know." She was taking a chance, she knew. Maybe it was better not to know what would come: fear? rejection? disgust? pity?

He opened his mouth and shook his head until the words slowly tumbled out. "I. . .when I was a boy you told me once you were afraid. I didn't believe it. I thought you were the perfect warrior, even then. An Amazon, straight from the jungle! But now I'm a man, and I understand about fear. I, too, have felt fear. And pain. And grief. And loss. We are not children, senorita! We understand. And we want to help. That's all I have to say."

She stood looking at him. He was angry at her, and saddened, too; chiding her, but very gently. And why not? She marvelled at her own arrogance. [Soberbia. Altivez.] Haughty overwhelming pride. Of course they weren't children -- and yet, isn't that how she'd been treating them? For two hundred years? And thinking of herself as special? As an Amazon, straight from the jungle? And yet the only real difference between them was. . ."The only difference between us, Juanito, is that I live longer," she said, more to herself than to him.

"You don't really believe that, senorita. And I have said too much. I'm sorry. Shall I get [la vieja,] or MacLeod?"

He was uncomfortable; she let him go, and he went to the intercom. In a matter of minutes, while Juanito stood silently and Elena sat back on the bed, wanting to cry, Carmela appeared at the door. She bustled in, all concern, and her grandson slipped out the door.

She peered closely at Elena. "You look better, [nina.] More color in your face. It's almost dawn, and I have already ordered breakfast. You need to eat! But first, I think, a hot bath?"

Elena didn't argue, and soon found herself soaking in a hot tub. Carmela and Francesca actually helped dress her. In spite of having slept for so long, she still felt exhausted, emotionally drained, helpless, weak. And now she also felt humiliated. And guilty. And stupid. She wondered idly if there was just one mistake, somewhere, that she hadn't managed to make.

"Now," Carmela said. "Breakfast here or downstairs?"

"I don't want to see anyone," Elena replied, and the old woman said something softly to the maid, who left. "Carmela. I'm sorry."

"Sorry about what, [nina?] About letting us see you in your moment of weakness? About realizing that you're human? Not perfect? Not always strong?"

"I let you down," Elena said, miserable.

"No. You let yourself down, perhaps. But all the disappointment -- it's coming from you. Actually, I feel flattered that in your pain and fear you came *here* for comfort; for safety. You came home."

"Yes. Home." Elena's eyes filled unexpectedly. It looked like today was going to be a day to cry. She hated to cry. For some it provided release. But she had always considered it a weakness. This, too, was the legacy of her mentor, Don Alvaro.

Carmela disagreed. "Perhaps a good cry is just what you need. Don't be ashamed. We're your family."

That admission didn't help Elena's emotional state, and she was grateful that breakfast came soon after. And with it, a very tired- looking Duncan MacLeod.

"Elena!" he said, pulling up a chair next to her. He took her hand, looked at her, examining her. She looked worn; like an old, discarded shoe, he thought. Her one eye was red -- she'd been crying, or trying not to cry. But this, he decided, was good. It was a hell of a lot better than the analytical iciness that had inspired her to ask him, just the day before, to take her head.

Carmela brought him some breakfast, then receded into the background.

"How are you feeling?" he asked her.

She sighed. "Do you remember those old tubs with the old- fashioned wringers? You put your clothes between the double rolls, and they came out the other end, squeezed dry."

He nodded, smiling slightly. A very apt image. He tried the coffee - - as usual, it was too strong, but it would probably do her good. And she was eating, a little.

"You scared me yesterday," he said.

She knew it was an admission he didn't like to make. "I know. I was alone then, and wanted no one. However, I've now decided that being alone is highly overrated."

"No more talk about killing yourself, then." He made it a statement rather than a question.

"No. I don't think so." She sighed. "Damn! I feel like I've let these people down, Duncan. And you. And Connor." She'd had the Connor dream before, and now couldn't get it out of her mind. More guilt. "And myself."

"Why? Because you're not completely self-sufficient?"

She snorted. "You're the one to talk. If there's anyone more arrogant, more quick to take the blame and the responsibility, than you. . .I don't know him."

"Maybe," he acknowledged. "But we're not talking about me. We're talking about you. You have to let it go. Let the past go -- look to the future."

"I can't forget that he's still out there. Even if he. . .doesn't come for me this time.You know if he ever gets a chance he'll take me again. And I can't fight him. I have to be aware of this. I can't let down my guard for one moment. I can't be safe anywhere." She said this is a tired tone. Defeated. "And I can't depend on you forever. Or Connor. Or the Oniocos."

"Not forever, no. You'll get back on your feet, Elena. Look how far you've come."

"Until he calls me on the telephone. And then I'm back to the beginning, again." She turned to him. "I can't take this much longer. I can't go forward, as you say, because he keeps pulling me back, back to that room. . .in a way, this is worse, because while I was there, I'd given up hope. Now whenever I get a little hope in my heart -- he takes it away with just his voice! I feel like it will never end."

"I know. And I've been thinking about this." In fact, he'd spent much of the night awake, thinking, trying to figure out the best thing to do. "I told you yesterday I didn't think he was coming. I still believe that. Do you?"

It was important to convince her, because he was about to make a radical suggestion, and he needed her cooperation. And he didn't really know if it was the right thing to do, not after last night, not after she'd talked about putting her head on a railroad track; like Mikey.

"Yes, I. . .I don't know, Duncan." She looked closely at him, fear coming up from her stomach to her throat. Suddenly she knew, knew what he was going to say. If Duncan felt she didn't need him to protect her -- he was leaving her! He'd had enough of her weakness, of her pitiable cowardice. He was leaving her! She was sure of it!

In fact, Duncan was considering just that, but from quite a different perspective. He knew that she would not be free until Bethel's head hit the floor. His idea was to leave her here, safe, with the Oniocos - - he'd have to talk to them first, of course, but had no doubt of their loyalty to her -- and go to New York to hunt Bethel, to help Connor find the Polish Immortal.

Translations:

la abuela - grandmother

pampa - in Argentina, broad treeless grassy plains

la vieja - the old lady

nina/nino - girl/boy

Madre de Dios (Span.) - Mother of God

Seven

But then he looked at her again, saw that she'd paled, her breath was coming faster -- and just the night before, she'd talked about taking her own head! No, he decided on the spot, this was not the time to talk about leaving her.

He sighed. "I'll call Connor again today. Sooner or later, I'll reach him. Maybe he's already taken Bethel's head." He smiled.

She couldn't smile back, and didn't even try. "Maybe." She, too, was worried for Connor. If she had learned one thing, it was that everyone, everyone was vulnerable. Even a rock like Connor MacLeod.

/////

Connor MacLeod arrived that same afternoon. They were in the ballroom: Duncan working on his strength, using heavy weights, and Elena on her stamina, using many reps of much lighter weights, when they both sensed him.

Duncan let the barbell drop to the floor and said to her, immediately, "It's not Bethel. But it might be Galieri." Using a towel to wipe his face, neck, and especially his hands, he picked up his katana. He didn't want her to run, but right now facing the incoming Immortal was more important than worrying about what she'd do.

Elena knew it wasn't Galieri because she'd asked Juanito to warn her ahead of time; after all, it's very hard to sneak up on a house in the middle of a broad, treeless plain. She also knew it wasn't Claude Bethel for the same reason, and it was this that kept her panic down to a minimum. However, almost any Immortal was bad news. Swallowing the fear that raced through her, and determined to see this through even if it killed her, she picked up her sword and followed Duncan.

Duncan heard her behind him and turned to smile. At least she was coming, and not going. When they arrived at the parlor, Connor MacLeod was just putting down his duffel bag.

In their minds, Connor's arrival could mean one of two things: either he'd chased Bethel all the way here; or he'd killed Bethel and was coming, personally, to let them know. Elena believed the first; but Duncan, knowing his kinsman better, hoped for the second.

The two Scotsmen had not had a chance to greet each other yet when Elena rushed to the elder MacLeod. "Connor!" she exclaimed. "I'm so glad to see you! We need to talk, now, right now!" So, it looked like Duncan's theory was wrong, she thought. Bethel had come after her, all the way to Argentina, with Connor following; and if Bethel was here, she needed to talk to Connor, explain to him, unburden herself, tell him before he had a chance to talk to Bethel and have him mock Connor with her betrayal. (Unless the two had already spoken -- Bethel was so fond of those phone calls!)

The nightmare with Connor and Miyu was still fresh in her mind; the image of his hand on the girl's shoulder still so vivid! She looked down at his hand. It was empty, of course. And she considered her thoughts about Connor nothing short of a betrayal, but if she had a chance to explain. . .maybe. . .[!Dios mio!] What a horrible thing to believe about anyone, and what a terrible thing to tell anyone!

Connor looked at her for a moment. Then he glanced at Duncan, briefly, curiosity in his gaze. But when his eyes came back to her they flicked first over to the katana she still held in her hand. He regarded her dispassionately, obviously waiting, but she hadn't missed his glance at her weapon, and she saw his tired body change slightly, straighten up, get into perfect balance. He'd reacted instinctively, immediately, not at the sight of the two Immortals before him, but to the weapon itself.

Elena lowered the point of her blade, then put the katana down on the sofa. She approached him, weaponless, and whispered, "Five minutes of your time. Please."

He did the circuit again, looking at her, at Duncan, at the sword now on the sofa behind her, out of her reach, and shrugged slightly, nodding. Taking a deep breath, she led him outside. But at the doors he looked at Duncan again, and the latter shook his head. Duncan had no idea what Elena had in mind, but as soon as Connor found out, he, too was determined to find out. From either one of them. His joy at seeing his kinsman had been, as always, tempered. He had long ago realized Connor's visits were never for pleasure only -- well, hardly ever, he considered, thinking about the time. . .but then the other two went out the double doors to the patio, and he was left behind to ponder and wonder. Just once, he thought, it would be nice to be able to predict what Elena Duran was going to do. Just once.

But not today.

The two walked outside, into a beautiful shady courtyard filled with trees and centered by the fountain. Now that they were there, taken in by the beauty of it, by her memories, she wasn't so sure she really wanted to talk to Connor. But once begun. . .

"I was tortured once before, by the [Sagrada Hermandad;] the dreaded Inquisition. The Spanish found out I was aiding the Mapuche rebellion secretly from my land. That made me a traitor, so the military hung me from that tree. My dead body was supposed to be food for the vultures and a lesson to the Indians."

She drifted off, and Connor filled in. "But you 'revived.'"

"They were terrified. They turned me over to the priests, who tortured me. But I healed. More than once. So I confessed to being the devil's spawn, hoping they'd just kill me and be done." She sighed. This was a particularly horrible memory -- one of the ones she'd always tried to forget. "They burned me alive," she whispered. "I thought then it was the most pain I could ever feel, the worst. . . that I would surely go insane. But I died cursing the Spanish; I died believing in my cause, and in myself!"

"But Claude Bethel -- he changed my mind. He reached into my heart, scooped out what was there, and replaced it with his own sick fantasies. He told me many things I didn't want to hear, and didn't want to believe. But in the end, I believed him, Connor. He told me. . . he told me that you betrayed me, and Duncan knew. . ."

"You already told me this, Elena." His voice was gentle, but his eyes were clinical, curious. Eyes that never rested, never entirely trusted. Eyes that always seemed to be wondering what was coming next.

She took a deep breath. Apparently Connor hadn't spoken with Bethel; he didn't know. She wondered if what she was about to say to him was too cruel, too cowardly, making Connor carry part of the burden that should be hers alone. But Bethel was bound to tell Connor. It had to be her, to tell him, to try to make him understand. So she continued. ". . .and that the price for your betrayal was Miyu. He described to me, in intimate detail, how you abused her, used her. Then, when I got to the antique store and saw Emma there, in the middle of the night. . ."

"What?!" These words, Elena could see instantly, were not what those eyes had expected. Connor turned from her quickly, as if she had slapped him. She could hear him chuckling -- a raw, strangled sound -- the laughter of someone too shocked, too suddenly and freshly bruised to speak. The laughter of someone too hard and too cold to express honest hurt or bewilderment. "You thought. . .you thought I. . ." he stopped, still laughing mirthlessly, and turned back toward Elena, his face pale, as if he were ill. "He told you I did this to a defenseless ten year old girl, under Duncan's care. And you. . ."

". . .believed him," her voice low, head lowered, she finished his sentence; whispering, but more than loudly enough for him to hear: "I believed him. He told me that Duncan had been a part of it, but I couldn't. . ." she shook her head. Even remembering was physically painful.

"Of course," he said softly. "You couldn't believe that of him. But me. . ."

"When I refused to believe him, Connor -- that's when he cut out my right eye." She was speaking loudly, now, rushing, trying to get it all out, her voice trembling. "He said if I couldn't see the truth. . .he was coming back for my other eye, Connor, and I was going to give Duncan up, too, say, do, believe anything, *anything,* so he wouldn't blind me, so he would just take my head!!"

She was scouring her soul clean, as in a confessional, telling him everything so that, like a priest, he could judge her, punish her, or hopefully, forgive her. . .

"That's why you had to call her, Miyu, in Tokyo. . ." he murmured.

"Yes."

Abruptly he clutched her face, raised her chin, so she would have to face him. "Maybe you wanted to believe it, Duran."

"Maybe," she admitted, "but I don't know, I don't. . .he also told me Don Alvaro, my mentor, my father, despised me for my Indian blood, and kept me around for his amusement, training me like he would a pet dog! And I believed that, too. . .I believed everything he told me, because it was the only way to stop the pain. And I have spent many hours praying to my father's spirit, and to others, too, for forgiveness."

"Is this what you want from me, Elena? Forgiveness? Absolution?" he said, releasing her roughly.

She took in a deep breath, let it out. This was going much worse than she thought. He didn't understand. He was blaming her for something she couldn't help. "That's up to you, Connor."

"Am I wearing a collar? Do I look like a priest?"

She could feel his anger. It was a cold distant force. She was silent, waiting. His eyes still bored into hers. She wouldn't lower her gaze, and wished she could read his expression. Finally he asked, "Why are you telling me this now? Do you still believe it?"

"No!" she practically yelled. "If I really thought that you'd touched Miyu, I would come after you; I'd kill you now, where you stand! I was wrong, Connor, and I was weak! I wanted you to understand, to hear it from me, not from. . .him! I'm telling you because we've never really trusted each other; because I wanted to be honest with you, [escoces!]"

He shook his head. "No. This is not about honesty, and you're not looking for trust. You want me to make you feel better. To take away your guilt." His voice was bleak and damning, his expression utterly arctic.

She was seeking his trust, but he was also right, of course. She wanted him to help her -- again. What in heaven's name had made her tell him? Why couldn't she have just gutted it out, kept it inside? Elena Duran hadn't really asked anyone to forgive her since the seventeenth century; not even Duncan, when she tried to behead him under the influence of her own dark quickening. But in a way this was worse; maybe because it was easier for her to believe that Duncan MacLeod would desert her than that Connor MacLeod would do such a terrible thing. No, she would just have to ask him to. . .

"Please forgive me, Connor." She looked into his unyielding face, hoping for the impossible.

"Forgiveness is like trust, Elena. It can't be demanded. It can only be accepted when offered." He turned away, but before he could walk away she grabbed his sleeve.

"Connor, I. . ." He allowed her to pull him back. But he gave her nothing. Looking into his face was like looking into an abyss. Empty and endless, like a glacier. Rage, ranting, even threats would have been enormously preferable. She thought about Rachel Ellenstein. Duncan had told her once that Connor had smuggled Rachel out Germany at the age of nine, that he had adopted her, raised her when all her relatives had been killed in the camps. She thought about Emma Cuzo -- 'adopted' by Connor in another way -- even if the girl didn't realize it yet. Connor's women, Elena had called them once; a rather sarcastic way of putting it. And wasn't she always sarcastic where Connor MacLeod was concerned? But this was about two little girls under his care. What she'd told him about Miyu would naturally extend back to these two as well. Damn! Even now she was realizing the depth of what her 'confession' meant to him. Of what she had said. Of what she had done.

She should never have told him -- what Bethel had said, what she had believed. She had been weak to believe it, and she had been weak to confess it -- to burden him with it. Another mistake -- possibly her worst. She let go of his shirt; released him. "I'm sorry, Connor," she said, defeated.

"I helped you escape," he whispered. "I let you put the people I love in danger. The people under my protection. Remember what you've been given, Duran -- before you ask for anything else."

For just a moment, before he walked away, they looked each other square in the eyes. "Please forgive me," she had asked. In need. With vulnerablility. Seeking his heart. And he had turned her away. Elena remembered how strong he had been for her, that night in New York. How nothing had shocked him, how nothing had been beyond him, how he had calmly comforted her, patiently cared for her, unoffended by her weakness, her brokenness, her fear. Connor MacLeod had an endless supply of strength to offer, Elena realized.

So long as you never asked him to feel.

Eight

She stood, pondering the consequences of her actions, wondering if there was any way in the world she could ever make it up to him, while he walked inside. . .to Duncan. Duncan! [!Madre de Dios,] Duncan! she thought, desperately. If he went in and told Duncan. . . [!No, Dios mio, no!] She'd betrayed Duncan, too!

Maybe he won't tell Duncan, she thought, walking stiffly into the house, her breath thick. As she got to the open double doors, she heard Connor say, "You'll have to ask her, Duncan. Let *her* tell you!" She slipped inside, and Duncan turned to her immediately.

"What's happened, Elena? What did you say? What's going on?" His voice was rough, demanding, full of alarm. Elena shuddered inwardly.

"Duncan, I. . ." Her eyes met Connor's, and she felt a wave of anger coming from him, a clear warning. And Connor was right -- she couldn't tell Duncan this! She'd already made a terrible mistake 'confessing' to Connor! But of course, Duncan would insist -- and she'd just have to refuse. If Connor wasn't going to hurt his kinsman, she wasn't either.

But she also knew that eventually Duncan would forgive Connor -- pretty much no matter what they did, the MacLeods would forgive each other. And she was almost sure Duncan would not extend that forgiveness to her. "This is something between the two of us -- Connor and me. It doesn't concern you, Duncan." She lied smoothly.

("The truth between us, always," they'd said to each other.)

"The hell it doesn't! Elena. . ."

"I hate to interrupt," Connor interrupted, deliberately, "but I didn't come all the way to Argentina to watch the two of you have a lovers' quarrel." The sarcasm was heavy, and Elena realized that Connor was distancing himself from the whole thing, letting her take all the heat from Duncan. Fine. All she had to do was keep her mouth shut. No matter what. . .

But there were other important things to consider. Connor was here hunting Bethel, and that was an important thing to consider. Definitely.

"I came to bring you something," Connor said to her.

Duncan was consumed with curiosity, about everything, and decided to wait and see what Connor was going to do.

Connor went to his duffel bag, opened it, and took something out. Without a word, he placed it carefully on the table in front of the sofa, in the center of the room.

It was a hatbox.

For a moment Duncan and Elena just stared at it, fascinated, as though it were some rare ancient artifact instead of a plain brown cardboard hatbox. . .then they came to the same realization at the same time.

Duncan looked at Connor, but the elder MacLeod was looking at Elena. "[!Madre de Dios!]" she whispered, losing all her color. Her knees weak, she walked over to the small table and reached a trembling hand out, although she couldn't bring herself to touch it. Fear, relief, joy, all coursed through her one right after the other.

Free. She was free of Claude Bethel. She was finally free!

But after a moment of pure ecstacy, shame and guilt fell on her like the proverbial wet blanket, filling her, overwhelming her. She tore her gaze away from the box, the box containing Bethel's. . .she brought her same trembling hand up and put it on Connor MacLeod's chest, then looked straight at him. His expression was empty, unreadable. Bethel could never tell Connor anything because Bethel was dead. And she could have spared them both, Connor and herself, such grief. Dear God!

She wanted, more than anything in the world, to throw herself at Connor's feet and beg for his forgiveness. The reason she didn't was not because of pride -- all her pride was gone as far as Connor MacLeod was concerned. She didn't because she knew what a futile, meaningless gesture it would be. Connor would never forgive her!

Never.

She felt the tears come.

("Crying won't do you any good, girl," Connor had said to her once.)

There was nothing she could say -- but before she could even try to think of anything, she heard Juanito's voice behind her.

"Senorita," Juanito said, quietly.

What?! she thought, then realized her hand was still on Connor's chest. She pulled it back, slowly, and closed it into a trembling fist, closing her eye as well.

"Senorita," Juanito repeated, and she twirled to face him.

"What!" she hissed at him; then paused, getting her emotions under control, and looked at him more closely. Something was terribly wrong. "What?" she asked, approaching him.

Juanito whispered a name in her ear, and Elena sucked in air. Reacting quickly, she pushed the Indian back out of the room, put her hands on both his shoulders, and took a deep breath. "I want everyone to stay out of his way. And Juanito. . .if I can't stop him; if he comes back here, ask the MacLeods for help. They'll help you -- both of them; either one of them. Understand?"

She could see that he was afraid, but he nodded, and she added, "Trust me."

Juanito put his hand on Elena's. "Since I was ten years old."

She smiled weakly and went back inside the parlor. The two Scotsmen hadn't moved -- less than a minute had passed -- and she went to the sofa and picked up her katana.

"Elena. . .it's Galieri, isn't it?" Duncan asked.

"Please, Duncan. . .I don't have time for this." What perfect timing, she thought, but it made sense. Late in the day, the chances were that she'd be tired. It was before dinner, so she'd likely be hungry, too. And dusk was an excellent time for a fight -- long shadows and a low sun in someone's eyes. Or eye. She could bet that Galieri was fresh and rested. And ready. And, to top it off -- if he only knew what a perfect psychological moment he'd chosen!

Duncan came up to her. He was determined to do this for her. "I told you Galieri was mine, Elena. You can't fight him."

"Duncan. . ."

"You're not strong enough; you don't have the endurance -- not yet, anyway. You're not ready." He glanced at Connor, hoping to get a word from him, even though he knew something had gone terribly, horribly wrong between him and Elena. But the elder Highlander said nothing.

"I might surprise you. And him." She said it, but there was no enthusiasm in her voice. In truth, she wasn't sure she could defeat Enrico Galieri. But she wasn't going to let Duncan know about it; or fight in her place, and it wasn't pride. It occurred to her that she just didn't care. Her mind was very clear; she could see everything in front of her, as in a scene from a movie, as though she were not a part of it. Maybe this was God's way of saving her, of getting the pressure off. Maybe it was God's way of punishing her. Either way, it didn't matter a damn. She'd fight him, and God's will be done.

Duncan shook his head, wondering who she had meant by 'him': Galieri or Connor. "The Italian will kill you, Elena." She said nothing, and he continued, "I'm not going to let you do this. I'm not going to stand by and watch you die."

She turned to him. "I did it for you."

"No, you didn't."

She explained slowly, as to a child, something she'd said to him many times before. "I interfered because the whole challenge between you and Hiroshi was my fault. But this is different. Enrico Galieri has nothing to do with you."

He shook his head again, and she continued. "Don't do this to me, Duncan." Her voice had taken on some urgency. She took his arm. "I'm an Immortal. This is what we do, remember? If I can't do this, what am I? This is what Claude B-Bethel took away from me, my sense of self, of who I am. Don't you do the same to me. Don't. . .I can't fight two of you, you and Galieri both. Only one at a time, remember?"

Duncan swallowed. She was right, of course. And he was wrong. But he still couldn't just stand by! "You interfered because you thought it was the right thing to do. I think my fighting for you, now, is the right thing to do. Let me do this for you."

As she shook her head, they all sensed the Immortal. Duncan didn't know what else to say to her, but he had to try one more time. In sheer desperation, he said, "When his sword is at your neck, do you expect me to fall on my knees and beg for your life, like you did? Is that what you want?" He had no idea what he'd do if she said yes. He didn't even know if he would do it. He just knew he couldn't, wouldn't let her die!

"No, [querido.]" She caressed his face. "I expect you to stand on your feet and take it like a man."

For a moment, they looked at each other; then Connor muttered, "It's showtime."

Duncan composed his features and looked toward the doors, but Elena still had her back to them. She glanced at Connor and thought she saw the shadow of a smile -- but it must have been a trick of the weak afternoon light. Or her imagination.

She took a deep, cleansing breath. The Italian wasn't going to have an easy time -- and this *was* pride. She had no idea of Galieri's skill or his age, but three years ago he had looked young and strong. That probably meant endurance, and endurance was the one thing she lacked. But she had experience. Fencing, like riding, was something she did well.

Maybe she could do this. Maybe.

In the meantime Duncan was looking over Enrico Galieri. He was as tall as Connor, with broad shoulders tapering down to slim hips and thick, muscular thighs. He was dressed expensively, and looked vain. Cocky. He strode in arrogantly, but Duncan thought his step faltered ever so slightly when he saw the two MacLeods.

"The ever-elusive Mariaelena Duran," he said in Italian. "Tell me, [signorina,] are you going to leave the country again, or hide on your land?" His voice was mocking; and yet Duncan thought he could hear a false note.

Braggadocio, Elena thought. And she turned to face her opponent. "Actually, I have nothing more important to do, [signor] -- so I guess I'll kill you this evening." The war of words, she knew, could often be more important than the actual swordfight. Elena was good at this game of words because she very seldom bluffed or boasted -- she really was confident, experienced, and mostly unafraid. She actually enjoyed sparring with words and fighting with swords.

But not today. Today she felt very little confidence and quite a bit of fear -- so she'd have to rely on experience. And she'd have to bluff.

Galieri looked at her carefully. "You've had an accident."

"Very observant. But it's nothing serious, I assure you. I still intend to take your head."

"With only one eye?" he scoffed, and she answered, "Yes; with one eye only."

He looked past her at the two men. "What about your friends?" he asked.

"Oh, how rude of me," she said, turning and including the others with a wave of her hand. "Duncan MacLeod; Connor MacLeod -- this is Enrico Galieri. Signor Galieri likes to threaten farmers and frighten innocent girls. But don't worry, [signor.] My friends won't interfere."

"And after the quickening?" Galieri was talking to Duncan, now, rather than Elena. He didn't sound nervous; not exactly, she thought.

Duncan spoke for the first time. "After the quickening, Galieri, we'll drink a toast to your memory. I promise." He smiled charmingly.

Galieri continued addressing Duncan. "I did not plan to fight three Immortals tonight."

Elena chuckled, making it sound mocking, derisive. "Come on, Galieri. You've been waiting for me for three years! You really want my head! Let's get it over with -- here's your chance." She walked up to him, her katana at rest behind her arm. "Let's do it. Now." Her voice got softer. "Right now."

He was going to back away. She hoped he would. She could smell his fear, and she smiled, because she was relatively sure he couldn't smell hers. It was a good thing to have two Scottish warriors at your back.

Galieri smiled, but it was weak. "Another time, [signorina] Duran, when you don't have quite so many friends with you." He nodded slightly, turned, and walked out.

Elena let him go.

But Duncan didn't. He stepped past her to follow the Italian, and she said, "Duncan."

"When I get back, we have to talk, Elena," he said to her, very serious, and walked out. Connor followed his kinsman without a glance or a word in her direction.

Elena stood quietly for a moment, feeling a whirwhind of emotions. Relief; gratitude; fear. What was she going to tell Duncan? How would she, how could she. . .finding it hard to think, she called Juanito. Just concentrate on normal, everyday things, she said to herself. "When the MacLeods return they'll be hungry and tired. Make sure they have a hot dinner waiting; and make up a room for the second Senor MacLeod. I believe he'll stay the night. Take care of them, Juanito -- anything they need. I'll be in my bedroom if they ask for me." She didn't explain anything else, and Juanito didn't ask.

Then she looked at the hatbox. It was still sitting on the table, looking very ordinary. She picked it up, hefting it, feeling its weight, holding it close against her chest. As soon as she got outside, two farm dogs came toward her, following her as she got a shovel from the toolshed and walked out to a likely spot beyond the gate. She put the box down and began to dig. One of the dogs sniffed at the box, expectantly, then suddenly drew back with a whimper. But the larger dog was much more interested, and he sniffed and snuffled all the time she was digging, trying to bite its way into the box.

Elena didn't shoo him away. She just continued digging methodically, spade after spadeful, not even thinking, muscles expanding and contracting, back and forth in rhythm, black dirt flying behind her. When she was ready, the dog had made a hole in the box and was digging its muzzle in. She pulled the dog off and knelt beside the hatbox. She had to look inside -- she needed to look -- so she took off the lid and pushed the dog's nose away.

The object inside the clear plastic bag was almost unrecognizable, but she remembered Claude Bethel's pale blond hair. Satisfied, and a little sickened, she closed the lid, took a deep breath, and buried the box.

Halfway through she saw the storm of the quickening, easily visible on the broad plain.

When she was done, she went upstairs, past Carmela, who was clasping her hands together tightly in an attitude of prayer, who started to say something to Elena but apparently changed her mind. Elena took a hot shower, then sat down in her bedroom to wait and stare into space. Soon after, she heard them both come in. But the night passed, and neither MacLeod approached her.

Nine

Duncan caught up with Enrico Galieri outside the front doors. "Galieri!" he called out.

The Italian turned to face Duncan. His eyes flicked once toward Connor. In the dimming light he looked uneasy. He took a step back. "I have no quarrel with you, MacLeod."

"That's where you're wrong," Duncan said, stepping forward. The enemies of my friends. . .you understand, don't you?"

"I have no intention of fighting you."

"Now tell me, Galieri," Duncan asked, sarcastically, "what makes you think I'm going to give you a choice?"

"No matter what I do; even if I take your head, I'll wind up fighting two of you."

"You mean my kinsman, here, Connor MacLeod? If I were you, I wouldn't be worried about him. I'd be worried about me," Duncan said, pointing at himself. "Tell you what. I can guarantee that you won't have to fight two of us. Only one. Only me."

"Another time, perhaps," Galieri said, dismissively, starting to turn away.

But Duncan took his arm. "Not another time. Tonight. Now. There's a nice place by the riverbank. We can take your car."

"Wait, MacLeod. Let's be reasonable." Galieri was speaking more quickly now. He pulled his arm loose. "We don't have to fight. Our argument is about this woman, Elena Duran. She is your friend. I understand. What if I were to say that I will not come for her?"

"You'll never come after her again?"

"No. I will give you my word on it."

"Your word, huh?" Duncan turned to include Connor, but never took his eyes off Galieri. The Italian was very nervous -- sweating, in fact -- and that in turn made Duncan nervous. He knew very well that even a mouse, when cornered, would fight back viciously. "He'll give me his word," he said to Connor, mockingly. Connor said nothing; his eyebrows moved up slightly. Then Duncan faced Galieri again. Not this time! he thought. All trace of humor gone, he said, flatly, "Not good enough."

"My word is not good enough? Is that what you're saying?"

Duncan said nothing, and abruptly Galieri reached inside his jacket pocket. There couldn't possibly be a sword there, Duncan realized. As the Italian pulled out a pistol, Duncan was drawing his katana. He swept across and Galieri screamed once as the flat of Duncan's blade cracked against his hand, breaking it. Duncan kicked the gun away and put his sword at the Italian's neck.

"Now, Signor Galieri, we'll get in your car, we'll drive to a more. . . acceptable. . .location, we'll patiently wait until your hand has healed, and then we'll fight as we're meant to, with swords."

The fight was short but brutal. Galieri was no mouse, and was inordinately strong, much stronger than he looked. He also knew how to handle a sword; so well, in fact, that Duncan, bleeding from several wounds, wondered if the Italian's 'nervousness' hadn't been all an act. The quickening, too, was more powerful than Duncan had anticipated, and when it was over he was exhausted and weak from loss of blood.

Connor leisurely walked over with a bottle of Dom Perignon. "I found this in his car," he said, popping the cork and handing Duncan the bottle. "Now you can keep your promise."

Sitting on the riverbank, watching the dark stars wink on and off, they sat in companionable silence for a time,drinking deeply. Duncan felt the bubbles tickling his throat on the way down, and reflected that before the night was through they'd probably be drinking something much stronger. He gave the bottle back to Connor and asked, again, "What happened between you two?"

Connor shook his head slightly. "Let's just say that your lover and I reinforced our original shitty opinions of each other."

"But why, Connor? I thought you'd reached some sort of. . .truce, maybe even friendship. Hell, you came all the way to Argentina to bring her that damn head, when a phone call would have done it!"

Connor smiled. "Yes, but it wouldn't have been as dramatic!"

"What happened?" he asked simply. "What did she say? What did you say?"

"Ask her."

"I'm asking you!"

"Didn't we have this conversation once before?" Connor said, handing the bottle back to Duncan. He was completely unruffled, and Duncan envied him that ability, the way Connor often (but not always) managed to stay cool during their quarrels.

"Yes, but I thought. . .listen, Connor. I know she didn't go for your head -- that much I'm sure of. But if she said something. . . something hurtful, please remember that she's been through hell."

Connor looked closely at his kinsman. With only the stars for light, they could just barely make out the shine in each other's eyes. "I know. And maybe it's about time she got over it," he said, coldly, and drained the bottle.

Connor had used that tone of finality that Duncan had heard before, and he knew, for a fact, that he'd never get anything more out of his taciturn clansman. Duncan would just have to ask Elena, then. She'd tell him -- yes, she would. But if this subject was closed between him and Connor, there were still others.

"How are Rachel and Emma Cuzo?"

"Back to normal. Rachel is relieved and Emma is pissed at me. Again. Still. I don't know. And Richie?"

"He hasn't completely forgiven me. I don't know if he'll ever quite trust me again."

Connor chuckled. "Sometimes I wonder why we bother."

"You know why we bother, Connor. If you hadn't bothered, I wouldn't be here now."

"Yes. . .and you were a hell of a lot of trouble."

"But worth it," Duncan smiled. If there was one thing on this God's earth that he was sure about, it was the love and loyalty of Connor MacLeod. "So tell me about Claude Bethel."

"What's to tell? [Vini. Vidi. Vinci.] You know, he didn't even have a sword."

"But you took him anyway."

"I didn't say he wasn't armed. I said he didn't have a sword." He shrugged, "I would have killed him naked in his sleep with his hands tied behind his back if that's how I found him."

"I'm sure Elena is grateful. . ."

"Really? How about resentful?" Connor interrupted.

". . .as I am," Duncan finished.

Duncan could just barely see Connor's smile. "Which one are you: grateful or resentful? Or both?" And when Duncan didn't answer right away, Connor added, seriously, "I would have stepped aside, Duncan. But you weren't there, and I saw what he did to her, and I had people to protect."

"I know. And I am grateful; not resentful," Duncan replied, with maybe a trace of resentment. "Thank you, Connor." What could have caused the trouble between them? he asked himself for the hundredth time. Duncan could still remember the sick, stricken look on Connor's face when he came inside after his talk with Elena; the look he'd tried, unsuccessfully, to hide from Duncan.

Connor shrugged again, acknowledging Duncan's thanks in their own personal body language. Then he stood. "Shouldn't we be getting back? I'm hungry."

Elena wasn't at dinner, and afterwards they polished off the bottle of scotch, and as much as Duncan wanted to find out what had happened, he decided not to ask her, not tonight, not when he had. . .overindulged. He wanted to be crystal clear when he spoke to Elena Duran.

"I'll be leaving in the morning, Duncan," Connor finally said, fuzzily.

>From Juanito, Elena found out the next morning that the two MacLeods had spent much of the night drinking quietly and that the second MacLeod had left very early.

"He didn't leave any message, Juanito?"

"No message, senorita."

She also found out that Duncan was asleep in his bedroom and was not expected to rise anytime soon. Not happily, anyway.

Elena was not looking forward to her meeting with Duncan, and was relieved when he overslept and then avoided her the rest of the morning. But by lunchtime Duncan no longer felt like his head would fall off his shoulders, and after fortifying himself with coffee and some good home cooking, he went in search of Elena.

She was outside one of the barns, brushing the mare. Funny, he thought, how many of their important talks in Argentina he'd remember in the future with the smell and look of horses in the background. The bright midday light helped give the sweat on her body a light sheen. Brush, stroke, brush, stroke. He followed the almost hypnotic movements of her arms; the biceps and triceps, very visible now, stretched and flexed as she moved. She was wearing a sleeveless top, and obviously nothing underneath, and her shorts hugged her curves nicely, revealing those muscular, slim legs which seemed to go on forever. Mentally, emotionally, she was recovering -- slowly, but surely, he thought. But physically, except for a problem with endurance, and, of course, her missing eye and short haircut, she was almost back to normal. Almost. And she looks good, Duncan thought. Good enough to eat.

Chiding himself for such untimely thoughts, he recalled the reason he'd come to talk to her. He was sure she'd heard him; or at least sensed him; so he simply said, "Elena."

She turned to him immediately, and the mare whinnied in protest. "Later, Adelita," she soothed, stroking the horse's neck..

Duncan said, "Let's take a walk."

She nodded, her heart thudding, and fell into step with him.

"Connor's gone," Duncan began.

"I know."

"What happened between you and Connor, Elena?"

She'd spent all night trying to figure out what to say to him and still had no idea -- except that she would not tell him the truth. "Duncan, I told you I betrayed you, all of you, Connor, Richie, Don Alvaro. It was the first thing I said to you, remember?"

"Yes; but there's more. I saw Connor's face. He looked. . .damn it, you cut his legs out from under him, Elena." He couldn't keep the anger out of his voice. "I don't remember seeing that look on his face before. I didn't like seeing it. I want to know why."

He was angry, and she wished she could deny the whole thing. But there was no point. "Yes, you're right. There is more to it. But I can't say. Please don't ask me, Duncan."

"Why? You don't trust me?"

"Trust you!!" They'd been walking side by side; now she stopped and faced him. "Duncan, I trust you with my life, with my sanity! Of course I trust you!"

"Then tell me," he said simply.

"I can't," she whispered.

There were only so many possible explanations, so he asked the question he dreaded to ask. "Did you go after Connor, Elena? Are you a danger to him?"

Now that would be an easy lie; and it would be the end for them. No more questions, no more pressure, no more Duncan MacLeod, because it would shut the door between them, between Elena and Duncan, forever. She knew he would try to forgive her almost anything -- he'd forgiven her for going after his, Duncan's, own head. But if he thought she was seriously after Connor, it would be over between them forever, with no hope, no future. No more Duncan MacLeod. "No!" she rushed to answer. "No, Duncan, no!"

He looked at her closely. He believed this, at least. "Then tell me what you said to him. Whatever. . .whatever hurt him so badly. You're afraid it will hurt me, too. Is that it?"

"Duncan. If you love me, you will please, please let this go. Please. Do this for me." She put her hand on his chest, like she'd put it on Connor's chest the day before.

Duncan thought about Connor's expression; about how he'd arrived in triumph, with his trophy, and left shaken, angry and bitter, without a word of thanks from her. After everything Connor had done for her. He shook his head. He would do almost anything for Elena Duran -- he'd done almost anything. But he wouldn't betray Connor; and this is what it felt like to him, a betrayal, a siding with her against him. He shook his head again, taking her hand in his, pulling it away from his chest. "I need to know about this, Elena. I have to know."

She took a deep breath and let it out in a long, trembling sigh. "You're always a MacLeod first, aren't you [querido]? Not just Duncan."

"You always knew that about me, Elena."

"Then we are at an impasse." And she knew what that meant. The only thing it could mean.

It sounded final; very final. He started to say something else, to try to convince her. On instinct, he took her other hand in his, kissed them both. "I love you," he said. But maybe Connor was right. Maybe it was time she was on her own, took charge of her own problems. And maybe it was time for him to stop protecting her. You don't need me anymore, Duncan thought. And you don't trust me.

"Duncan," she breathed.

"But I can't live with this." He didn't feel he had a choice, and resented her for putting him in this situation, of choosing between them. And right now he resented Connor, too.

Elena felt her heart was being crushed inside her chest. "I know," she barely managed to whisper.

He turned away and walked back to the house. Twenty minutes later he came down the stairs with his long dufflebag.

She'd been waiting, and at the foot of the stairs she stopped him. "Duncan, I wish. . ."

He put his bag down, cupped her face in his hands, and kissed her softly on the lips. "Just tell me. Trust me." He tried one more time.

"I can't," she answered.

"Elena." He let his arms hang down, defeated. Then he left.

To be parted from her, like this, maybe forever -- and forever was such a long time for them! After what they'd been through together; the feelings they had for each other! All given up! And for what? Because she had turned against Connor, somehow, and didn't trust him, Duncan, to understand; didn't believe in him! Didn't believe in either of them.

("I betrayed you. All of you.")

When he was truly gone, and she could no longer sense his presence, Elena collapsed onto the bottom steps of the wide staircase of her beautiful house and wept like a child.

Translations:

vini. vidi. vinci. (Latin) - I came. I saw. I conquered. (attibuted to Julius Caesar)

Ten

New York City, December 23, 1996, 6 p.m.

Elena had another bad dream on the plane, a dream that startled the flight attendants, and left her with a bad taste and a stench of sour sweat -- so much so that she had to stop by the hotel to clean up as soon as she arrived. It hadn't been hard to find the Cuzos' address and wait for the redhead to show up. Emma was surprised and cautious, but curiosity finally won out and she agreed to join Elena.

"Let me buy you a cup of coffee, and I'll tell you all about it," Elena told her. Tell you as little as I can, Elena said to herself. Just enough to make Connor. . .Russell. . .look as good as possible in your eyes, kid.

Elena came to New York with the main purpose of getting Claude Bethel out of her mind and her heart forever. He still haunted her from the grave, and she felt that going to the basement where she'd been held for those three hellish weeks -- physically going to the *torture chamber* -- would enable her to finally realize that she was safe, free from Bethel, finally and completely free. It would be, she considered, an act of closure, and she desperately needed for this episode in her life to end.

Memories, she'd realized long ago, were objects she could store in suitcases, in chests in her mind. Sometimes she opened these suitcases again, to bring out some good memories that could help her or comfort her or cheer her; or even some bad ones that had nevertheless done her some good, helped her learn, or grow. The so- called 'learning experiences.' Some of these trunks, however, she wanted to lock, put chains around, and drop in a river. But sometimes they wouldn't stay locked. They bobbed to the surface of her mind, bursting open in her face when she least expected it, spewing forth painful, horrible thoughts like maggots spilling out of an old corpse.

As much as she hated returning to this city, she hoped -- she prayed -- that seeing that room again would enable her to put these memories to rest forever. However, she didn't know where she had been held.

But Connor MacLeod knew.

So here she was, again, going to see Connor, to ask him, again, to help her. Damn! And maybe, if she was lucky and very careful, to try to make some sort of peace with him; if possible. Maybe. If God was good, and Connor MacLeod was willing.

First things first, however. Emma Cuzo.

Elena had a very clear mental picture of the redheaded girl, remembering how Emma had defended Rachel and crossed Connor. Now, sitting across the table, Elena looked at Emma's blue eyes, eyes that had been filled that night with outrage and defiance and sympathy and kindness. But then Connor had grabbed the girl, and said, right in her face: "Emma, you're going to do what I tell you to do -- do you understand?" He had hurt her, and terrified her; cowed her completely. And she had obeyed. After that, there was only fear in those blue eyes . . .not of this boogeyman who had hurt Elena so badly, but of Connor himself. Elena remembered the spark in Emma's eyes. She could see it now. And she knew that someone like Emma wouldn't easily forgive Connor for having frightened her, bullied her.

So she'd come to find out how badly her troubles had wrecked Emma's relationship with Connor, and to find out if she, Elena, could do something to make it better. She doubted that she could make it worse. Because Emma had helped her; and Emma, although she didn't yet know it, would need help herself. Help that Connor MacLeod was particularly suited and apparently eager to give her. If Emma would let him. If Emma didn't hate and resent him.

So Elena told Emma a story about being kidnapped by a maniac, and about going to Russell for help, and about how Russell had come through for her, been strong for her, even though he was just "a friend of a friend," and hadn't really known what was going on.

"Russell saved my life; and yours, by the way, and placed himself and all his friends in danger by doing so. I just wanted to explain, so you wouldn't blame him for anything that happened."

Emma pursed her lips and shook her head, still unconvinced. "Then explain this, Elena, because our dear Mr. Nash won't. One minute, all of a sudden, the world's turned upside down, everybody's in danger, there's this sociopath on the loose, with so many connections the police can't touch him. It's dangerous, I'm told, to even go to the police. Rachel Ellenstein leaves town. Russell closes up the shop, skulks around -- you can almost see panic in his eyes. He tells me to lie low, stay with a friend, and call this new private line of his if I notice the slightest weird thing. He's cryptic as hell --I mean, as *usual* -- but obviously worried."

"Then one day, just as suddenly, everything's fine. Nash Antiques is open for business, Ms. Ellenstein is back behind her desk. I ask about Bethel, and Russell just cocks his head and asks, 'Bethel who?'"

Emma looked deep into her coffee cup, staring into the dark liquid, it seemed to Elena, as if it might give her an answer. Then she looked up into Elena's eyes, as if they might tell her what no cup of coffee could. "He's dead, isn't he? Bethel's dead. That's the only explanation, isn't it?" She paused; hesitated. She and Elena both knew what was coming next. Emma didn't need a coffee cup or a crystal ball. She had her own eyes, and a head to put it all together. "And Russell -- Russell killed him. Am I right?" She asked the last question in a whisper, as if she didn't want to hear what she was asking. As if she didn't want to know what she knew.

What does she know, Connor? Elena asked him silently. What did you tell her? What has she guessed? This was the biggest lie coming -- but she knew she could pull it off. "Of course not, Emma. Russell Nash is not a killer." Connor MacLeod -- now he is a killer; yes indeed. "*I* killed Claude Bethel."

Emma sat back for a moment and stared at Elena. Her face was shocked; then thoughtful, considering. Finally, she shook her head slowly. "No," she said. "You were terrified of him. I saw you. I remember."

She's going to make me work for this, Elena thought. Very well. She leaned forward, across the table, and clutched Emma's hands. Used her one-eyed stare to bore into Emma's soul. And poured out just a bit of the hell that Bethel had left inside her. And some of the wildness, the violence that had always been a part of her. Just enough of each to overwhelm the girl. To convince her. "Yes, [chica,]" she said, softly but firmly. "I was terrified. Which is why I had to be sure he was dead. By my own hands. With my own eyes. One eye -- remember that! So the nightmares would stop."

"You killed him?" Emma drew away, pulled her hands out of Elena's grasp.

"With joy in my heart," Elena answered, truthfully -- about the joy part, anyway.

Elena watched Emma's expression carefully. Watching to see if the fish had swallowed the hook. In her face Elena saw suspicion, a little fear. But some excitement, too. The beginnings of belief. "You've done this before," Emma observed, "haven't you?"

The question was rhetorical.

Elena leaned back away from the girl, relaxing the set of her shoulders, letting kindness show in the curve of her mouth, but keeping a spark of ruthlessness in her eye. It was a posture most experienced Immortals had perfected; modulating the body language to send two messages at once: promising danger to others but safety to the mortal close at hand. Reassurance and danger, all at the same time. "Do you believe I'm a killer, Emma?"

Emma studied her for a minute. "You know what?" she finally answered, "I think I do."

Elena smiled. The girl had guts, whatever else. She picked up the sandwich she'd ordered. "Then maybe I'm someone you should stay away from. But trust Russell, Emma. He's a good man." In her own way, Elena believed that Connor MacLeod was 'a good man.' At least, certainly where Emma was concerned.

There was a sharpness in this girl, a toughness, which Elena recognized as being within herself. It was probably the same thing that had drawn Connor to her in the first place. But looking at the blue eyes, eyes that tried to be so cynical, so world-wise, Elena saw the innocence -- no, not innocence, the lack of experience -- there. And she knew that Connor wouldn't take advantage of that lack of experience, wouldn't betray her. Not, at least, until Emma knew who she was.

After that -- there can be only one.

New York City, December 23, 1996, 10 p.m.

Elena watched in fascination as the light gleamed off the blade in her hand. For centuries she'd been captivated by swords; their power, their beauty, their simple dangerousness. Unlike those who believed material things were not important, she knew that some objects, the ones that really counted, were given life and souls by being loved, and responded to that love.

The weapon in her hand, now -- it had been loved. Maybe not recently. But she could still feel the effort and skill that had gone into its creation, and the care lavished on it by someone. It wasn't encrusted with jewels; it wasn't a 'rich' blade; but it was well crafted and in excellent condition -- and like any old object of any worth, it had been well used. The nicks and scratches on the blade told wondrous tales for those who cared to listen, to feel them, and the leather on the hilt was worn by the imprint of a large hand. A man's hand. Of all the weapons in Connor's collection, this one had stood out, had called to her.

She still held the broadsword, point upward, forming a cross in front of her face, as Connor came into the room. His hands were empty, but that could change in a flash, she knew. And yet she was quite sure that Connor MacLeod would not go for her head. Not even now.

"Too heavy for you, I think," he said.

She smiled, more to herself than to him, and carefully placed the weapon back on the wall. "I've been building up my shoulders."

He looked her up and down, carefully. "I can see you've been. . . practicing."

"No kidding," she said, somewhat amused. Three challenges in five weeks, right at her doorstep; three Immortals who had heard that Elena Duran was blind in one eye, weakened, assailable. Two perfectly capable fighters who had underestimated her, not realizing that she was not about to lose her head now, not after all she'd gone through and survived. No way.

The third Immortal who had come for her -- the most experienced of them, the one who actually had the best chance of taking her head -- had realized *something.* An Argentine named Pedro Vargas, he'd studied her, they'd talked, they'd both pulled back from the brink -- and they'd made a beginning at a friendship, sharing a bottle of wine on her patio. "I heard that you were vulnerable," he had said to her. "Those rumors were obviously false."

"You're one of the last people I expected to see, Duran. Or wanted to see," Connor said.

She smiled at him. "Keep 'em guessing."

He moved closer to her. As always, she could feel the strength of his personality like a physical force, like a flag bearer carrying his colors in front of him. "What do you want?" he asked curiously, maybe with some annoyance? she wondered.

Let's get right to the point, Connor, she thought. "I need to ask you for. . ."

His chuckle interrupted her. "Ask me for something?" he repeated, sounding incredulous and sarcastic at the same time. "I always knew you had balls, Elena. Now give me one good reason why I shouldn't throw you out -- or throw you in the river, for that matter."

She had no doubt that if he decided to throw her in the river he would give it his best effort -- and probably succeed. He was angry now, a little; cautious; and maybe actually impressed with her chutzpah. But mostly, he was curious. She counted on that. "I just need an address, Connor."

As she said this, Elena looked at his face. It took him maybe half a breath to realize what she was asking. Oh, he was sharp, alright! [Las coge volando] -- no flies on him, she thought, admiringly. She contrasted him with Duncan, who was also very bright. But because Duncan was so attractive, so charismatic, he called people's attention to himself, and they expected more from him. Or maybe, under the dumb jock theory, they expected less. But Connor was so nondescript that he raised no expectations, good or bad. He was just a normal, low-profile, John Doe type of guy. And that, of course, made him doubly dangerous.

He sat down, studying her the whole time. She really believed she had surprised him, twice now in one night. Must be a record. "I'll take you there," he finally said.

It was her turn to be surprised; and suspicious. "Why?" she asked.

He shrugged. "I hunted Claude Bethel for three weeks. Day and night, he's all I thought about, dreamed about. I guess now, coming like this, you've peaked my curiosity."

But something else had occured to her. Damn him! "And maybe," she said savagely, bitterly, "you'll get a chance to see me squirm, to see me suffer, remembering what he did to me, reliving it, maybe collapsing in terror! Would you like to see that, Connor?" she snarled at him, fury coursing through her.

He crossed his legs and leaned back. Looking directly at her, he said, coldly, "I've already seen that show, Elena."

Elena winced as though he'd struck her. She clearly remembered being on the ground at Connor's feet, the snow burning her hands, begging him for mercy, begging him to take her head. Arrogant, vindictive bastard! she thought. How could she have expected to make peace with this man? She stood in front of him, where he sat, and deliberately went to her knees, looking at him closely. In spite of his apparent nonchalance, she could see something waiting in the back of his eyes, something hungry, wild and feral. She recognized it because she'd seen it in her own eyes, in the mirror. And she could bring that wildness out, right now, she knew; and so could he -- they had always had that particular skill where the other was concerned. She also knew how dangerous it would be for both of them.

But she swallowed any heated comments -- she hadn't come here to fight with Connor. She wanted to stop this endless duel of words. She'd come because she had no choice. She needed information; another favor. . . however, she couldn't resist saying one thing. "Just out of clinical curiosity: do you actually bleed real, red blood, [escoces?] Or is it just ice water?"

He didn t move. Their eyes were locked. "There are advantages to ice water, Elena. It keeps you cool. It keeps you from saying and doing stupid, impulsive things that you later regret."

She stood smoothly and moved away from him, facing away. Score another one for Connor! "Just give me the fucking address," she whispered, spent. She just wanted to go, do what she'd come to do. That was hard enough, without this! "I'll get out of your life and try not to cross paths with you again. You can't get a better offer than that." Cut your losses, she thought.

She heard him lean forward. "What about Duncan?" he asked.

"Duncan?" she whirled on him. "Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod? I didn't tell him, if that's what you want to know. And he. . .I. . ." She wanted to say something bitter about Duncan, about how he'd hurt her. But all she could remember about Duncan was his kindness, his strength, his support, his love. "I love him and I miss him," she said, with an effort.

Talk about saying something stupid and impulsive! she thought, kicking herself. She had just bared her soul to a man who wouldn't hesitate to shred it; who didn't like her; who had a grudge against her, justifiably; who wanted to hurt her like she'd hurt him. She turned away again, waiting for the cutting remark. She would take just about anything he had to give -- it was the least she could do -- then get the address and leave.

For a moment he said nothing. Then she heard him stand. "It's a beautiful night. Why don't we walk over? It'll clear both our heads."

Their eyes met, understanding. Then she nodded and they walked out together into the cold Christmas night.

Translations:

chica (Span.) - girl

Eleven

Elena put on her glasses. She still sometimes felt a dull ache around the glass eye, where her right eye used to be, but she knew it was a phantom pain, all in her head. It was cold enough that she could see her breath. The wind blowing between the buildings cut into her, throught her cloak, chilling her hands and face.

After several blocks of silence, Connor asked, "What did you tell him?"

"Nothing. He left the same day you did." She shook her head. "The love and loyalty of such a man -- I trust you earned it, Connor. I hope -- I pray -- you appreciate it."

"I do," he said simply.

Elena nodded. "He thinks I don't trust him, and that there's something terribly wrong between us." It struck her, then, what an absurd statement that was. Nothing had been right between her and Connor MacLeod, not since the night they first met and came within a hairsbreadth of dueling in Duncan's dojo. It was so absurd, in fact, that she laughed softly, just thinking about it.

"You think this is funny?" he asked caustically.

She could read the tone of his voice. "No, Connor. I haven't actually laughed at anything since. . .August. Maybe July. It's not funny. Nothing seems to be funny. Absurd, ridiculous, yes. But not funny, no."

"I don't understand how Duncan put up with you, Elena."

"You don't understand me. You can't put me into one of your little categories. And that makes you nervous, doesn't it? I make you nervous." She didn't expect an answer, so she continued. "Well, you make me nervous, Connor. Very nervous. And yet, here we are, walking together on a New York street, towards. . .do you know that you are one of only a handful of Immortals that I would allow to walk on my right side, my blind side? And do you want to know why you're one of that elite group? Do you want to know why, Connor?"

He nodded slightly -- she had to turn her head to see it -- and she stopped, facing him. "Because if you wanted me dead, you'd come at me from the front, and I'd see you coming, and we would both have a fair chance. I believe that. I count on it."

"And you want me to believe the same about you? Is that what you're trying to tell me?" His voice was rough, sarcastic. She could hear the upcoming refusal, if she dared ask.

She didn't ask. "Someone once told me that trust, like forgiveness, has to be offered, not demanded."

A slight smile. "It must have been someone very wise," Connor said.

"Yes, I think so. . ." she answered, a small feeling of triumph deep inside her. A smile; even a little one. And his sense of humor, showing itself. Maybe there was a chance.

She turned to continue walking. They had gone through a section of Manhattan called Soho, and now she recognized something. It was a certain look -- the names, the storefronts, the restaurants -- and especially, the smell. Italian! Italian food! "Is that?" she murmured, taking a deep breath, smelling tomatoes and garlic and olive oil, and it brought her back; for a moment she was back running through the dark streets, racing, being chased, knowing Bethel was right behind . . .she shuddered. No! Bethel wasn't after her. Bethel was dead. And she could take care of herself. Not to mention the Highlander next to her, walking on her right, his sword arm free; who made her feel nervous and safe at the same time.

Looking ahead, fully aware of her surroundings now -- her Aikido [sensei] would have flayed her alive for walking around so obliviously -- she saw trees. A park. This, too, she remembered, and she rushed forward, and as she left Connor's side she heard something she hadn't heard in a long time, and it stopped her cold. It was a long, low, and very practiced wolf whistle. The 'offender' looked Italian, looked to be right in place, and he gave her a charming, full smile. When she stopped, he and his companion walked over to her.

Elena had gained back all her weight as muscle, and she walked with a confidence she hadn't felt in months. She'd had no one on whom to take out all her frustrations after Duncan's departure, and had spent long hours riding, working out, boxing, doing katas. Her hair was a mass of short, soft curls against her skull, and because of the eyeglasses, her false eye wasn't obvious unless someone took a close look. She wore a white turtleneck, which contrasted with her healthy cafi au lait complexion. Under her cloak, long, jean clad legs fit snugly into tall black boots, her usual Reeboks having been replaced for the sake of warmth. And the sharp-edged invisible katana sat snugly against her right hip, giving her an even stronger sense of security, of rediscovered self. When the Immortals had arrived to challenge her, she'd been ready.

The Italian, who reminded her of Duncan, approached, grinning -- but then his smile faltered as Connor came up to her. There are unwritten rules, Elena thought. As a woman alone, walking in the street, she was fair game for any man who wanted to talk to her, accost her. But if she was with a man, then anything said to her reflected on her companion. This could lead to a male confrontation. The Game, she decided at that moment, had to have been invented by men. As the Italian's words literally died on his lips she remembered her previous assessment of Connor MacLeod as nondescript, nonthreatening. The man in front of her obviously didn't share that opinion.

But Elena had other more important things to think about, so she did something instinctive, unthinking. She put her arm into Connor's, feeling his strength, and led him forward, around the two men and toward the park. "I remember this, the trees. . ." she murmured to him. The patch of green was long and thin, and she read a sign she hadn't noticed before: Sara Roosevelt Park.

(A man lurching at her out of the shadows, the smell of sweat and alcohol very strong, "What'cha doin'? I'll cut you!)

She walked away from Connor again and stood under a tree, then turned to him. "We're close!" she said, and he nodded. She felt a mixture of excitement and fear, and wondered if she really, really wanted to do this, to face this. It occurred to her that if she were alone, she might have just backed off, slunk away into the darkness. But Connor's presence made it impossible for her to retreat, now. She had to go forward. Something else to thank him for. . .or maybe not.

They walked down Grand Avenue, turned a corner, and Connor stopped in front of a brownstone. It was no different from any of the other houses there, and Elena felt no recognition, no sense of deja vu.

"This is it," Connor announced softly, and she took a moment to look at him more carefully, but he was looking at the house, assessing it, solving the problem in his mind of how to get in.

"The front door?" he suggested, but she'd learned a few things from Amanda, in Paris, while they had waited interminably for the Hunters to make their move.

She shook her head. "The back door."

/////

They had no trouble getting in the door. The corridor was dimly lit, and they found the basement door under the stairs. That lock, too, was easily breached, and Elena stepped downstairs, with Connor following.

She recognized nothing. There was a row of windows up near the ceiling, tables, other objects, boxes stacked, scattered everywhere. At the bottom of the stairs, to the right, was a door, and she walked to that unhesitantingly. But when she put her hand on the knob, it felt sticky, and she suddenly wanted to throw up. And she didn't, really didn't want to turn that knob, or go inside that room. For a moment she stood, paralyzed, her hand still sticky on the knob. There was the noise of pipes, the furnace, some small animal moving around, her breathing and Connor's. He was standing very close to her, behind her, in the dark. So she turned the knob and opened the door.

Bone-chilling cold, and pitch blackness, so she felt around for a light switch and clicked it on. Quick glance around: about three meters square, windowless, empty table in the center, cot in one corner, and in the other corner, bolted to the floor, was a chair. A metal chair, with a tall back and leather straps.

She stood in the doorway, staring. She'd never seen the chair from this perspective -- only from the point of view of a person sitting in it, strapped to it -- and it looked much like she imagined an electric chair would look; a chair nicknamed "Ol' Sparky;" a chair found in certain cell blocks in maximum security prisons. As soon as she stepped inside this freezing room, mesmerized by the view of this chair, she smelled it. Obviously the room had been cleaned up, even deodorized; but there was an after-odor, the sour smell of a cell. A cell where an animal had been held, and had been hurt. She'd been in several of those. She could, by stretching to the limit and using her imagination, still smell the vomit, the urine, the sweat. And the blood. Especially the blood.

She wanted to turn and run. Instead, her heart thudding so hard she wondered why everyone in the building wasn't hearing it, even inside this soundproof room, she walked forward.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Connor slip inside, take a quick look around, and murmur something almost unintelligible; words that were absorbed by the walls. Then he glanced at her, once, and left the room, closing the door behind him.

For one brief panicked moment she thought he'd locked her in, in this frigid room with that chair, with that smell, with the memories. . .but there had been no sound of a lock. The door was unlocked, she could get out if she wanted to, she was not locked inside, she was free! Free.

Having established that in her own mind, and refusing to try the door, to try to see if it was locked -- she actually did trust Connor MacLeod at her back, and she trusted herself -- she turned back to the chair. It meant nothing to her because she didn't recognize it, and she knew the only way she would, the only way she could get this out of her system and out of her mind was to, in some way, relive it. And then realize that she was no longer a victim, or a prisoner. That it was over, and she was free. But just standing here, being here was not enough.

She'd have to sit in the chair.

The thought terrified her. Her breath caught, and she took two steps to the door, knocking her hip on the edge of the table, the table where Claude Bethel had displayed his "toys."

("What toy shall we play with today, Elena?")

She could feel the panic start to build up, although she knew in her head, in her heart, that she was safe, that nothing in this room could hurt her. But she didn't want to be here; she'd been a fool to come here; and now all she had to do was leave, just walk out the door, and no one would know what happened, and things would be back to the way they were before.

Except she would know, and the way things were before was not good. That's why she'd come -- to wrest the last part of her life, of her mind, of her soul, out of Claude Bethel's dead grip, his deathgrip.

She kicked the table, suddenly, and it slammed against the wall, and she looked at the door, expecting someone to come in. She knew Connor was nearby; she could still sense him very close by, maybe just outside. . .but he hadn't heard the table hit the wall. He wouldn't hear anything that happened in this room. No one would. No one had.

So she took the two steps back, with an effort, turned around, and started to sit down. Except now, at this moment, she saw things from her own perspective again. And she remembered. And she didn't, God no! she didn't want to sit in this chair. It was the last thing in the world she wanted to do!

But her knees buckled, so she fell into the seat, sitting down by default.

The metal was cold, chilling her right through her clothes, and it sucked all the body warmth out of her; and all her strength, too; all her will; absorbing all her life force. And she was back, a prisoner again. Again. [!Dios mio!] My God! She didn't dare look down, but could feel the straps come alive and fasten around her ankles, her wrist, her waist, tighter. She was having trouble breathing; sweat broke out all over her body, and her heart was going to burst out of her chest. It was going to explode! And this time she wouldn't be able to escape. There was no escape. When she came back to life, Claude Bethel would be waiting. Claude Bethel was outside, right now, waiting to come in, waiting to hurt her again. She knew he was just outside -- she could sense the Immortal.

She started sobbing, whimpering like a wounded animal. Her arms seemed to sink into the arms of the chair; her body became one with it, as though it were a deep hole and she was falling in, without any chance of climbing out, any chance of survival. And she could feel the pain, too, now. Unbelievable pain. Pain of broken bones, of smashed skulls. Burning pain of electrodes driving electricity into her body, the smell of charred flesh filling her nose and mouth. Searing pain caused by red-hot knife blades, which came up with parts of her skin attached . . .pain everywhere, engulfing her, filling her, overwhelming her. She was helpless again, and alone, and in pain, and at the mercy of a man with no mercy. And because she would do anything, anything to stop the pain in her body and in her mind, she betrayed them all, all her friends, all the people she ever loved.

("I betrayed you all, all of you!")

("Believe me, Elena. He never loved you. Believe me and the pain will stop.")

(No, please! Please, Bethel, I'm begging you, just kill me, please, no more, please! I'll do anything you say, anything you want, please, don't. . .")

("The MacLeods betrayed you, Elena. Both of them. Why would I lie to you?")

She was paralyzed with terror. She couldn't move. Her lungs felt too small, and she couldn't take a breath. And then, suddenly, her pounding heart stopped -- just stopped beating. And now she would die. She would die in this chair, permanently, like she'd known from the beginning she would.

"NOOOOOO!" She screamed then. It was a long, agonizing cry which seemed to last forever, and when it was over her mouth was filled with blood -- but the pain was gone. And her wrists weren't really strapped down, she wasn't really tied to the chair. And Bethel was not in the room. He wasn't hurting her.

She tensed her muscles, and with a superhuman effort she launched herself off the chair like a rocket going into orbit, and bounced off the wall, hitting her side on the overturned table, breaking one or two of her ribs. But this pain was different: it was real, she really felt it, right now, and it jolted her, brought her back to herself.

Claude Bethel wasn't there. He was dead, and he couldn't hurt her anymore. Except he was still hurting her. "What he did to me! What this bastard did to me!" she muttered, over and over, a litany, a prayer of the damned.

She grabbed the table leg, ignoring the pain in her side, and pulled with all her strength. Then, standing to get better leverage, she kicked at the table leg until it came loose. She used the leg to smash the table, over and over, then jumping on the weakened table, kicking it, breaking it, tearing it to pieces. A piece of wood buried itself in her leg. She pulled it out and threw it against the wall. She gasped, trying to get air in her burning lungs, making a keening, wailing sound, the kind heard from swaying, heartbroken widows in cemeteries. She picked up pieces of the table, slivers digging deep into her palms, and used them to smash against the chair -- but it was metal, it was indestructible, it was bolted to the floor. So she picked up the metal cot frame and crashed that against the chair. But it wouldn't break. It wouldn't even bend.

Claude Bethel was dead. She knew that. But he could still hurt her. And the symbol of that hurt, of his power over her, was that damned chair! So she smashed everything in the room against the chair, breaking the table into kindling, bending the frame of the cot, finally using her fists, breaking most of the bones in her hands, straining and pulling muscles, tearing something in her knee so painful it gave way, and she sank to the ground with a cry of pain and rage. Then, from a kneeling position, as though she were worshipping the chair, she pulled out her katana and sliced off the leather straps. But it sat there mocking her, and she finally collapsed from fear and exhaustion on the floor.

How long she lay there, she had no idea.

Finally, when her body healed, she reached out and touched the chair, then pulled her hand back instinctively, as though it had been burned. And suddenly she felt faint, and claustrophobic, and needed, had to get out of that room. Her hand still around the hilt of the katana, she crawled, then stood, and lurched toward the door, opened it, and burst through, tripping against the basement stairs. For a moment she lay on the steps, panting. Then she picked herself up, taking two steps at a time, and climbed up and out of the building.

Twelve

She was a block away before she even sensed the other Immortal. She still held her katana, and she turned with a snarl, instantly on guard. It was Connor MacLeod, and she realized with a sinking feeling she'd rushed right past him heedlessly.

"Angry is good," he said, standing a distance from her, his hands held away from his body.

She said nothing, trying to calm her breathing. The terror, shame, helplessness, and despair she had felt in that room were mostly gone. But the rage remained, and Connor was a possible target, and she wanted to get away from him. "Why are you still here?" she finally asked, getting each word out slowly, fighting for control.

"I thought I'd get us a taxi," he said quietly.

She put the point of her sword down. "No. I need to walk. Alone!"

"Well, since we're going in the same direction. . ."

"I don't need your protection, Connor!" she hissed at him.

The streetlight illuminated his smile. "But the muggers might need my protection. From you."

"Do you know," she continued, not really hearing or caring about what he'd said, "how many fucking bastards have tried to take me down? Like him!? But I'm still here!" she growled.

"I know," he said calmly.

She tried to make sense of her muddled head. Why was everything so confusing? Connor was not an enemy. He was trying to help her. "Look, I appreciate your help. . ."

He moved closer to her. "Even without my help, you would have gotten away from him. Wouldn't you? Wouldn't you, Elena?"

Her mind was in a fog, and she found it hard to think, too many thoughts, too many emotions. . .but somehow she heard what he said, this time. "Yes," she finally answered.

Connor nodded. "You're a survivor. That's one of the things I admire about you, Elena."

She chuckled, mirthlessly, still angry. "You admire something about me?"

"You'd better put your blade away," he said, ignoring her comment. "People might notice."

Elena looked around, but the street was, as always, deserted. She sheathed her weapon, then stood for a moment, indecisive, until he said, "Elena. Let's go."

His voice was like an anchor; it brought her back to reality. She shook her head. "I. . .I said I'd keep out of your way, remember?"

"Yes, you did. But you left your backpack on my sofa."

Backpack.

Damn.

She shook her head, again, finally smiling. Unbelievable, but it was funny. And he was too arrogant for words, this Scotsman. "And you think I did it on purpose, don't you?"

Connor shrugged. "I think. . .we could both use a drink."

Because her relationship with Connor MacLeod was filled with menace, and innuendo, and unpleasant possibilities, she was usually alert to every modulation of his voice, every nuance of his body language. And now for the first time tonight she noticed a strain in his voice. And didn't he look pale? What happened? she asked herself. Surely he wasn't that disturbed by her actions, her reactions. He didn't even like her! Then she remembered what he'd said, inside that basement room; words that had almost disappeared into the soundproof walls before she could quite make them out.

"I've been here before," he'd murmured.

But Connor said he was curious about Bethel's house, that he hadn't seen this room. And why would Connor have lied to her? To make her feel better? That would be a first, Connor MacLeod sparing her feelings!

She realized, then, with a start, with a small explosion going off in her head, that Connor had not been there before. But Claude Bethel had been there before. Elena had been the recipient, the victim, of Bethel's horror; and that had been bad enough. But what must it be like, my dear God! to have that mind, that consciousness crawling around inside yours? To have that quickening, and make it a part of your psyche? Elena hadn't wanted to know the answer to that question. That was one of the fears that had kept her from coming after Bethel in the first place.

But Connor had hunted Bethel for weeks, getting into his heart and his head -- and then literally, with the quickening, Bethel had gotten into Connor's heart and Connor's head, and Connor had to carry that around with him. [!Madre de Dios!], Elena thought, looking at him carefully, wondering what it had cost him; what price he was paying even now.

All these thoughts travelled through her mind at the speed of light. She still wanted to be alone, to think, to sort out her feelings -- but Connor was opening a door for her, inviting her in. And isn't that what she wanted, to make peace with Connor? And maybe, just maybe, to help him, too, a little? Because he had come with her to watch her back, no question. To protect her, if she needed it. But maybe he'd also come because he, too, had to be in that room, again. Because he, too, had nightmares he needed to get rid of.

She took a deep breath. No way she was passing up this chance.

"Alright. One drink, then. As long as it's not scotch," she added. It was the one 'joke' between them, her insistence that she didn't like scotch, even though, in her drinking days, it had been her beverage of choice to put her in a drunken stupor, to escape her constant, hounding misery.

He answered as he always did, with some smart remark. This time it was, "Barbarian!" under his breath, quite loud enough for her to hear. And they walked back, side by side, Elena a little stunned and just keeping her rage in check, wanting to try to connect with Connor but hoping they would meet some muggers.

They were near the antique store when he said, softly, almost to himself, "Every night, for three weeks, I was on the street, hunting him. I got to know him quite well. He was full of weakness, fury, and fear. A lot of fear. He didn't even have a sword -- he was too afraid to use it. He had no strength himself, so he couldn't stand to see strength in others. It frightened him, and made him mad; envious. So he had to destroy it. Not just take the head, make the kill, but destroy the person, too, completely." He turned to her as they walked, leaning into her, whispering in her ear. "He tried to destroy you, too, Elena. But he failed. He couldn't do it."

He was so close, their shoulders were touching. Her throat felt tight. Sometimes a quickening just coursed through her, disappearing into her subconscious, never to be heard from again. Sometimes, she got a glimmer of a thought, a feeling, a memory, perhaps, that she knew was not originally hers. And sometimes, as in the case of Robert Trent, as in the case of Koltec, the quickening had taken over the recipient completely, for a time. She wondered how much Connor MacLeod was aware of, was conscious of; how much he knew about what Claude Bethel had done. Especially about what Bethel had done to her. But she'd never know, and she'd never ask.

Seacouver, December 23, 1996, 6 p.m.

Duncan was straining, hard, to do one more pull up when Richie walked into the dojo. I guess it's that time of the day, Duncan thought to himself, not much caring anyway.

Richie came right up to Duncan and said, "Your office," then walked there, assuming Duncan would follow. Funny, Duncan thought, a bit piqued, it didn't sound like a request. It sounded more like an. . .

"Sit down, Mac," Richie ordered, and Duncan slowly went around and sat behind his desk, surprised, seeking his only psychological advantage so far in this one-sided conversation.

"You've been mooning and worrying about Duran for weeks, but I don't think you've been in touch with her. So, I asked Joe what was up with her. And before you tell me it's none of my business, remember that I care about her, too." Richie glared at him. "The question is, do you want to know what I found out? Or are you going to be the stubborn Scot? See, I can play it both ways. If you're not interested, just say the word and I won't mention her again."

Duncan was interested, and concerned, and too shocked to argue back. He'd wanted to call her many times in the past weeks, but he really had nothing to say to her. She was the one who needed to talk to him; who needed to want to talk to him. And calling Connor would have been an exercise in futility.

But Duncan was reaching the end of his patience, and he hated to sit around and wait, depressed. He'd been severely depressed in the past when he'd lost someone he loved. But Elena Duran was alive -- he knew that much, and Richie had just confirmed it. However, there was a lot he didn't know. "Yes, I want to know," he said, not sure if he really did.

Richie sighed. "Three challenges. Three Immortals in the last five weeks, and only one walked away. They're coming at her from all sides, Mac."

Duncan nodded, saying, "Bad news travels fast," but he was shaken. Three Immortals in such a short period was a lot, for any of them. But at least she was still alive -- that's what Richie was saying. Right. He marvelled at the younger Immortal's matter-of-fact tone of voice; realizing, again, how much Richie had changed. A year ago Richie would have followed up his statement with something like: "Mac; you've got to do something!" or "If you won't help her, I'll do it myself!"

But Richie had learned the essential lesson of Immortals: there can be only one. And that meant that no matter how many friends, lovers, companions an Immortal had; how much he or she was loved, he still had to fight his own battles, alone. And die, alone.

"They smell the blood in the water," Richie said, quietly. "Except it's not her blood, is it?"

It was an astute observation on Richie's part, Duncan reflected. Richie had learned that Elena's bad experience with Bethel, like Richie's own bad experience with the dark quickening, had the same effect on her that it had on him. Whatever else, it had made them both more vicious, more efficient killers. And that, too, for Immortals, was as it should be. The ones who were weakened by suffering and trauma were culled out, destroyed by the other Immortals. Only the strong survived, and they generally became stronger. Not necessarily better; but stronger.

"No, it isn't," Duncan agreed. "The blood they smell is their own."

"Yes, that's what I figured. You know, Mac, I gave up on her at one point. And she gave up on herself, too, I think. We both made a mistake." He sighed. Duncan could clearly see that Richie was now identifying with her more; with an older, more experienced Immortal. He was seeing himself in that new light. "Anyway, I thought you might want to know. Because whatever happened between you two, I know you still love her."

And so do you; you love her, too, Duncan thought. Then again, that's what Richie had said, wasn't it? "Yeah, I do, Richie," Duncan said, then added, "Thanks."

Richie went on, his voice more animated now. "Well, I guess it got to be too much for her, being a sitting target in South America. What I don't understand is why she'd go back to New York!"

"New York?" Duncan asked, surprised.

"Man, if I were her, that's the last place on earth I'd want to go back to. At least for a few hundred years or so."

It occurred to Duncan, then, that this might be a deliberate attempt on Richie's part to manipulate him, to try to get him riled up, to get him to do something. If so, he didn't care. Plus, it was working.

"When?" Duncan asked, alarmed.

"According to Joe, she left Buenos Aires today. She should be in the Big Apple this afternoon sometime."

Duncan stood, walked around his desk, and left the office, squeezing Richie's shoulder on his way out, murmuring, "Thanks, Richie." At last he was moving, doing something, going somewhere.

There were several reasons why Elena would go to New York. Some were good reasons, some bad, and most of them involved Connor MacLeod somehow. Bottom line, Duncan was going to find out, today, what the story was. It was time to visit his kinsman. And this time, Duncan wasn't going to take no for an answer.

//////

On the plane, Duncan drank. It was a way to keep busy, a way to keep from having to think too much, to worry; but it wasn't working. If, when Duncan arrived, Connor wasn't home at this hour, he was probably on Immortal 'business,' and there was always the chance, every time, that he wouldn't see his clansman again, that Connor would be swallowed up by this city, as full of Immortals as Paris was. Of course, it was always possible that Connor might be at his place with a woman; but Duncan knew how Connor had spent the last few months, and a woman wouldn't have fit into the picture.

Unless, of course, that woman was Elena Duran. But Duncan had dismissed that idea. If he were a jealous and suspicious type, perhaps he might have interpreted Connor and Elena's quarrel in Argentina as a sexual one. Perhaps one of them had made an overture to the other and been turned down. But he trusted Connor too absolutely, and knew him too well. Even if his kinsman had entertained such thoughts -- and he was pretty sure that Connor actively disliked Elena -- he would never have acted on them, or ever said anything. As for Elena; Duncan could close his eyes and still see her face when he'd left her ranch. There was no question in his mind that she loved him.

Now, hours later, jet-lagged, he was inside Nash Antiques, making his way past all the remnants of former times and former lives, climbing the stairs. He sensed the Immortals above him, and guessed there was more than one. Maybe two. And he could guess who the second one was.

Thirteen

New York City, December 24, 1996, 1 a.m.

They went into the antique store, both silent, lost in their own thoughts. Elena's legs were trembling as though she'd run a marathon. She was physically and emotionally exhausted, and she still had to talk to Connor, a draining effort in itself. Still, she'd gotten some satisfaction from going to Bethel's. But when she sat on the sofa, next to her forgotten? backpack, leaned back, stretched out her legs and closed her eyes, she could see that indomitable chair, impervious to any damage, sitting in that room, mocking her. It was what was left of Claude Bethel, and became, in her mind, the symbol of his lingering influence. If only there was some way. . .

Connor was very close, and she lifted her head and took the drink he was offering her. He sat across from her, leaned forward, and said, "[Slainte.]"

She leaned forward, too. Their glasses touched. "[Salud, dinero, y amor,]" she murmured, and while he sipped, she took a long gulp. The amber liquid flamed its way down to her toes, and she coughed once.

Connor smirked. "Can't take it, huh?" But it was said with humor, almost in a teasing way, she hoped, or that's the way she decided to interpret it. Because she was in no shape to cross words with him tonight, and didn't even want to try. She looked at him. In the better light he still looked pale, and worn, somehow, and she wondered again what demons he was fighting inside himself. As he studied her openly -- and if having Connor MacLeod's full attention on you didn't make you nervous, nothing would -- it occured to her that she, too, looked haggard, and her clothes were sweaty and bloodstained. It had been a long, rough night for both of them.

"Oh, I have something for you," she remembered, going in her pack. "Actually, it's for Rachel. As an apology for scaring her; and everything else." She put a small wrapped box on the table between them.

Just hours before, she'd had to be very convincing to persuade Emma to accept a gold chain and Santa Rosa de Lima medal "because I'm grateful for your help to me." It was expensive enough to be sold if Emma were ever desperate (and Elena had been in such straits once or twice), and the chain was short enough that it couldn't be grabbed by an opponent during a fight.

Connor nodded and said, "I'll see that. . ." as the phone rang, suddenly, startling her. Her eye was drawn to the sound and she noticed a message light on the answering machine beside it. Connor made no move toward it, however, choosing to lean back and listen instead.

The voice was young, New York, and instantly recognizable. Emma Cuzo.

"Mr. Nash. . ." Emma's rueful laugh seeped out of the machine and drifted across the room. "Oh God, I only call you Mr. Nash when I think you're pissed. And when I think I deserve it." There was a self-conscious pause, and she started over. "Ok, let's try this again. Hey Russell, it's Emma. I left a message a couple hours ago, and I guess you're still not home, because you didn't call me back. That is -- unless you're sitting there right now, on your couch, drinking scotch and listening to the machine pick up."

Elena looked across at Connor. He seemed to be deep in thought, listening carefully, staring into space. Unmoving.

"It doesn't matter, you don't have to call me back." But she desperately wanted him to; Elena recognized the need, the want, in Emma's voice. And surely Connor heard it as well, Elena hoped. "I just wanted to tell you something. Someone visited me today; a mutual acquaintance: Elena Duran. We talked." A deep breath, audible over the wire, "About Bethel. She told me -- she made me realize. . ." her words were slow in coming, and a little rough. The way words always were, Elena knew all too well, when a woman was admitting she was wrong. "Look, I was wrong. I was unfair to you and I was unkind. And I'm not telling you this to try to fix anything; this isn't some craven attempt to get my job back; I don't expect this to mean much to you, at all. . .but I'm sorry. I should've trusted you; you deserved that, at least. Anyway, I. . ." her voice trailed off.

"Merry Christmas, Russell." The click of the phone was loud and exaggerated by the machine. The sound seemed to echo through Connor's apartment.

Connor looked at Elena for a long, silent moment after Emma was finished talking, and Elena steeled herself for whatever he had to say.

"So the two of you had a conversation. About Bethel. And about me," he finally said, softly. Then he asked simply, "Why?"

Curiosity only? she wondered. No hostility, anger, resentment? "Because. . .I know what she's like, the strength there, the will, and I thought she might resent what happened; hold it against you." Elena remembered that the day she'd originally come to the antique shop, the day Bethel had trapped her, she'd tried to warn Connor to tread carefully with Emma. "I didn't want her to blame you, and I wanted her to know. . ." just say it, Elena! ". . .how grateful I am to you, for what you've done for me. For being strong when I was so helpless." There! She'd said it. She'd humbled herself before him, completely, again, this time of her own free will. And, she reflected, her pride was still intact. Mostly. Maybe. For the moment.

But that's because he hadn't said anything yet. She wanted to leave before he said anything hurtful. But she owed it to him to stay, to take his shot. And when he said nothing, his face completely unreadable, giving her no clue, she added, "Maybe it was a stupid, impulsive thing to do. If so, I'm sorry." I'm sorry, Connor. Again. Another apology; two in one night. Wow. That must be a record. Please take this offering, she pleaded silently. That's all I'm going to give you. Say whatever you're going to say, and let me go.

He had placed the bottle on the table between them, and her empty glass was next to it. He refilled it. His eyes were shiny. "You really do like scotch, don't you?" he asked her.

She gave him a small smile; a shake of the head. He wanted more, but she wouldn't give in to him; not on this point. "If I have one more like that you'll have to carry me over your shoulder back to my hotel."

It wasn't exactly what she meant to say -- she was so tired, even the one drink was affecting her -- but he thought it over and smiled. A smile is good, she thought.

"You don't have to walk everywhere, you know. There are taxis for that. And I wouldn't put you over my shoulder."

Maybe he wasn't going to say anything else. Maybe this was his way of acknowledging her thanks, by drinking with her. A connection. It was what she'd been looking for, hoping for. But she was afraid to drink any more, afraid to lose control in front of him, and she couldn't bring herself to stay. Not even for this. She was so tired, she thought she'd find it hard to stand; but she stood. "Thank you, no. I better go." You still make me nervous, Connor, she thought. "But there is one more thing I'd like to *ask* you."

He couldn't keep the surprise out of his face; then he grinned. It was a superior smirk, she thought, and yet he'd passed up a chance to strike out at her. This was better.

"Ask me?" he said, expectantly, standing also.

She pulled the katana, sheath and all, out of the sash at her waist, and offered it to him. "An even trade."

This time he was not surprised. "The broadsword," he said.

"It has a story to tell me. I'd like to hear it."

"It's German." He paused, then added, "I can tell you a little about it."

He was going to trade, to let her have the sword! And she hadn't even known how much she wanted it, or even that she was going to ask for it, not until she stood up to leave and realized she didn't want to go without it. What a night this was turning out to be!

He took her offered sword but didn't unsheath it or examine it. She had an idea he'd gotten a good look at it already. But before they could turn to go into his 'weapons' room, they both sensed the Immortal.

Elena watched Connor change. He had been alert before -- she couldn't remember ever not seeing him alert -- but now he squared his shoulders, took a deep breath and let it out. The tiredness seemed to slide off him as though he were shrugging out of a coat.

"Maybe it's a friend," she said, not really believing it, putting one hand on his forearm. Her stomach felt tight.

"Maybe," he said, his voice changed, harsher. He walked over to turn on a monitor. Elena reflected that the man didn't like surprises. Especially in his own home.

They got a clear view of the intruder, and Elena didn't know whether to be relieved or not. She wasn't ready for this! "[!Madre de Dios!]" she whispered hoarsely.

It was Duncan MacLeod.

Translations:

slainte (Gaelic) - cheers

salud, dinero, y amor (Span.) - a toast meaning health, money, love

Fourteen

Duncan was in the room, and Elena waited for him to say something, not knowing how she stood with him, not knowing if he hated her, of if he even cared anymore, or if she had the right. . .but after a slow count to three she rushed at him, almost bowling him over, burying her face in his shoulder. "Duncan," she murmured, "please tell me you're glad to see me; even if it's not true!"

He hugged her, hard. "Of course I'm glad to see you, sweetheart! I came to New York looking for you."

She said nothing, relief washing over her. He'd come for her! He didn't hate her! It would still be hard, talking to him, telling him, hurting him. . . but he deserved the truth. However, that was for later. For now, for the moment, he was holding her, and nothing else mattered. The whole front of their bodies pressed together, and she could smell him, and for the first time -- for the first time in how long, [!Dios mio!] -- it felt good to hold him, a man she loved achingly, fully, and who, she hoped, loved her. For the first time in months, Elena felt, not fear or revulsion, but the stirrings of desire, again. And since she had thought she never would, ever again, she quietly soaked his collar with hot tears, not wanting to let him go, not wanting to let this wonderful moment end.

Duncan had gotten a fleeting glimpse of Elena, while she stood there, indecisive, and had noticed her pallor, her agitation, the blood on her white sweater.

Now, looking over her shoulder, Duncan noticed other things: the bottle of scotch on the table, and two empty glasses, although Elena had pretty much sworn off hard liquor; the nicely wrapped Christmas present next to it; and one more very important and puzzling thing. It was, actually, the first thing he'd noticed: Connor had Elena's katana in his hand, and was just putting it down as Duncan came in. Duncan tried to think of a reason why Elena Duran would give Connor -- or anyone else, for that matter -- her weapon. He couldn't come up with a single one. And yet Connor wouldn't, couldn't have just taken it.

He looked at his kinsman, noticed the tension in Connor's body language and the tiredness in Connor's eyes. And something else, too, in Connor's eyes, that he couldn't quite identify, but looked almost like pain.

Here were the two of them, Connor and Elena, together, alone. Duncan tried to shy away from the immediate thoughts that assailed him. Surely, Elena's greeting, her obvious joy at seeing him, meant something. As for Connor: what had changed since he left Argentina, full of anger and hurt? Something else had happened, tonight, Duncan knew. Something important between Elena and Connor, that wound up with their drinking together, with Elena's sword in Connor's hand. As he looked at Connor, wondering, his eyes strayed down to the table, to the katana, and back to his kinsman. Something important, that he was going to find out about. Tonight.

"Connor?" he made it a question, by way of hello, and he saw that Connor had heard the question, and had noticed Duncan's eyes darting down to the sword. There wasn't much, Duncan reflected, that Connor didn't notice.

"Good morning, Duncan. I wasn't expecting you. This night is full of surprises."

This told Duncan that Connor hadn't expected Elena's visit either, and the younger MacLeod knew his clansman wouldn't lie to him; however, there was a lot Connor wasn't telling him, either. Typical, Duncan thought, anger flaring slightly.

"Elena, let's have a look at you," Duncan said. She felt very firm in his arms, and when they pulled apart and he looked at her face he saw tears and dried blood and exhaustion and some new lines etched around her mouth and maybe a little fear? But there was no question she was glad to see him. Up to a point.

He gave her his best welcoming smile. "You look. . ." he began.

She smiled back, but it seemed hollow. "Happy to see you, but nervous, too. Scared, even. And tired. It's been a long day, Duncan."

"So what are you doing in New York?" he asked, getting straight to the point.

"How did you know? I didn't even tell Carmela. . .oh," she realized, smiling ruefully. "The Watchers. Our guardian angels."

"Actually, Richie found out. He's worried about you."

She smiled again. "Richie's sweet. Tell him I can take care of myself. Again. Maybe even better."

"So I heard," Duncan said. "Three challenges in a little over a month." Out of the corner of his eye, Duncan saw Connor's eyebrows go up.

"They keep coming for me." She shrugged, dismissing them. Headless bodies in Argentina were not important right now.

Duncan nodded, then insisted again, "You still haven't told me what you're doing in New York." He glanced again at Connor, who, as usual, was saying very little. Not this time, Connor, Duncan thought. This time someone is going to talk to me.

Elena didn't miss the glance between the clansmen. She wasn't sure what Duncan was thinking, but didn't quite like it. So she hurried to say, "I came to new York to visit. . ." she took a deep breath, ". . . Claude Bethel."

She nodded at Duncan's puzzled look. "Yes, I know; but he's still alive, Duncan. He lives on in me." She put her hand on her chest, her glance darting briefly to the other MacLeod. And maybe in you, too, Connor. You feel him too, don't you? she thought. "He won't let me go. So I have to do it, get away from him again. I had to go back in that room, and sit in that chair, to prove to myself that I can leave, on my own, free from him and his influence. Do you see what I mean?" She spoke quickly, urgently.

Duncan stroked her hair, then pulled her close to him, again. He could feel her heart slamming against his chest. "I understand, sweetheart. I do."

"And Connor, well; Connor knew the address, and he kept me company."

Her voice was muffled by Duncan's shoulder, and he looked at Connor again. Connor knew the address. He kept her company. And he had Bethel's quickening. Going into that room may have been a strain for Connor as well, although he'd never admit it.

Meanwhile, Connor brought a third glass for Duncan and filled it, while Duncan walked Elena back to the sofa. This actually was one of the reasons he'd considered for Elena's trip, her need to finally break free of Bethel by confronting her memories directly. And he was somewhat relieved. "Sitting in that chair again." Duncan shook his head, empathizing, shuddering inwardly. "It must have been terrible for you, [querida.]" Terrible, he thought, but maybe necessary.

"I had no choice. And I actually feel better, but. . ." she drifted off.

"But?" Duncan asked.

"That chair is still there, Duncan. Mocking me. It will be there one hundred years from now, if I go back!"

Her voice trembled: whether from rage, fear, or a combination of the two, Duncan couldn't tell. But if she felt this strongly, he knew what they had to do. "You have to destroy it," he said. "We have to."

This wasn't what he wanted to say. It wasn't what he wanted to do, to think about. He wanted to sit down and talk to her, and to Connor, and find out what had happened and where they stood, although he could tell things were better, now, between the two of them.

But that chair. . .he could see how important it was to her. And, he thought, maybe it was important to him, too. Maybe he had to see it, too, to see that room, before he could be clear of Claude Bethel's smothering influence. And it would have to be done now, first, so they could go on from there, starting over. He'd waited for weeks to talk to her. He could wait a little longer. But not much longer, Elena.

"Destroy it? I tried already! It's made of metal, [!carajo!]" she spat out, grinding her teeth impotently.

"You tried? With your bare hands?" Duncan asked. He drank the scotch, considering, while Elena shook her head.

"You need a forge," Connor contributed.

"That's it," Duncan said, smiling at Connor. "We'll melt it down."

"New York City." Elena said slowly and softly, as though she were speaking to herself. "Open for business twenty-four hours a day." Excited now, with a plan of action, she went to the phone. "I'd like to rent a van. Right now, tonight. Please deliver it to this address. . .yes, I know there's a delivery charge. . .yes, I know what time it is. Tell your driver if he can get it to me before three o'clock there will be a two hundred dollar tip for him. And of course, I'll send the same to you, Mr. . ." She finished her transaction and turned to the MacLeods, grinning now. "It's good to be old and rich."

Connor laughed, and later declined their invitation to join them. "You two go ahead on your little adventure. I have to return a telephone call."

Good, Connor, Elena thought. Call her back. And be nice to her. She's going to need it. Elena took one step toward the door, then twirled to face Connor.

He smiled at her, almost mockingly. "And here I thought you'd forgotten. . ."

"You're joking, right?" she countered.

He went into the other room and brought out the broadsword. Reverently, he placed it horizontally in her hands and stepped back. Elena deftly turned it around to grip it left handed. She held it up in front of her face, brought her hands down and apart, and gripped it again with both hands, holding it high, taking a deep breath, eyes closed, concentrating, loving the weapon, getting a feel for it. She'd have to work to be able to use this blade. It was almost too heavy for her. She couldn't afford to get lazy, and it would demand the best from her. "[Ahora si,]" she murmured. "This is the one. [Gracias, Dios mio.]"

Duncan had seen that sword on Connor's wall, and had admired the workmanship. Obviously it meant a lot to Elena. "It's a beautifully crafted blade," he said to her, "and it's made for you, isn't it?" he added, looking at Connor, understanding much more.

"It speaks to me," she said simply, feeling such comfort from it, such strength from the swordsmith, from the wielders of the blade. It occured to her that Connor had probably beheaded the sword's last owner. She'd want to find out about that. For now, she put it in her waistband and said, "Goodbye, Connor. I'll stay out of your way, as I promised."

He looked at her. "That might be best."

"But I think we will meet again," she added. The thought still made her nervous, but no longer filled her with foreboding.

"I'm sure we will," he agreed, smiling slightly.

"Connor," Duncan said. They'd hardly spoken to each other; and, Duncan realized, Connor wasn't going to say anything else. Duncan would have to talk to her. Still, the understanding and love of the Scotsmen for each other was sufficient.

"Duncan," the elder MacLeod replied.

/////

They removed Bethel's chair without incident, Ducan unbolting three of the legs while Elena struggled with the fourth, the most stubborn bolts, putting her whole strength into loosening them. They loaded the chair into the van and watched it melt at the junkyard. And Elena put her hand near the liquid metal and screamed.

"You're crazy!" Duncan told her later. "What did you do that for?"

"Because it wasn't enough to see it or smell it being destroyed. I had to feel it, too, in my own body," she replied.

Smiling, he hugged her while she drove. "Don't you ever do things the easy way, Elena?"

"Easy way? There's an easy way? Oh, my God, please tell me what it is!" she answered, and burst into tears so violent she had to stop the car. "Duncan, please let me get some sleep. I'll tell you everything you need to know, everything you want, but I'm so exhausted I can't even think. I'm so glad you're here! I love you!" she sobbed. She really didn't know what she was saying, but he understood, and brought her to the hotel, took her dirty, bloodstained clothes off, and put her into bed.

And later in the day, as he sat reading and dozing, watching over her, waiting for the nightmares that seemed amazingly absent, she awakened and called to him, welcoming him, and he asked her, "Are you sure, Elena?" and she said, "Yes; please let's make love." Because she was sure. She had cleansed herself of Claude Bethel's influence as much as she could. Even by fire. He no longer owned her body at least -- she was no longer strapped to that chair or to that cot. Her body belonged to her, again, to give it again in love to whomever she chose. And she chose Duncan MacLeod. As for her soul -- well, time would help purge the rest. Time and the love of good friends.

They made love quietly and carefully as though it were their first time together, or the first time for either of them. Afterward, when Elena cried -- and so did he, a little -- he needed to be sure. "[Querida,] Duncan asked, worried, pulling away from her. "Is it alright? Do you want to talk? Are you afraid? Do you want me to go?"

"No, don't go, please, Duncan. It's not fear, or bad memories, or anything like that. I'm just so glad to feel like a real person again, I'm overcome. I can't. . .just stay with me for a while."

He stayed with her.

Eventually, exhausted, they fell asleep in each others' arms, just like in the old romances, where they lived happily ever after.

By the middle of the day on Christmas Eve they woke up and called room service, and while they ate -- no alcohol, for her at least -- they sat in bed.

Please forgive me, Duncan, she thought. "I have made more mistakes in judgement in the last six months than in the previous

century," she began. Then, calmly and willingly, Elena told Duncan everything.

Translations:

ahora si (Span.) - this is it

carajo (Span.) - damn

To part 8: "Confidante"

To the Authors' Pages